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Book Review: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

Johannes Cabal is on a quest to cure humankind’s greatest enemy, death itself, and he will do whatever it takes to achieve his goal: grand larceny, murder or selling his soul to the Devil.

“Johannes Cabal the Necromancer,” written by Jonathan L. Howard, is a fast-paced, highly imaginative and unrelentingly witty novel. This caper-style supernatural fiction revolves around the titular Johannes Cabal, a man of science, a necromancer (naturally), and an ethically disastrous delight of an antihero. In order to escape the consequences of selling his soul, Cabal must damn one hundred other souls over the course of a single year through the use of a sinister traveling carnival, lent to him by the Devil himself.

Cabal’s world is an alternate history of our Earth, set in a nebulous time period around the early 1900s. With an underlying steampunk vibe, it is unfamiliar enough to firmly distinguish it from our own world, but familiar enough to get excess explanation out of the way.

The fantastical elements of the novel, most notably Cabal’s practice of necromancy, never dip into cliché. Cabal is as much of a scientist as he is a spellcaster, and the blending of these elements makes for an engaging system of magic which avoids the more common trope of black-robed villains raising zombie armies.

Beyond the usual genre appeals, the main strengths of the novel lie in its engaging protagonist and its excellent use of dark comedy. Cabal pursues his goals “armed only with his intelligence, a very large handgun, and a total absence of whimsy,” as described by the author himself on the book’s webpage.

While brilliant, he is highly unpersonable, ruthless, and generally morally bankrupt, but the reader will root for him from start to finish. Each time he almost goes far enough to lose the reader’s investment in his future, Howard skillfully reels us back in with reminders that while Cabal is not a good man, he has a moral code of his own.

Although there are occasional moments where Howard’s narration veers into slight pretension, these moments rarely overshadow the enjoyable playfulness which distinguishes the book from many of its peers. Crucially, Howard knows when to allow his snappy, sardonic narrative style to take a backseat to well-timed beats of real horror or genuine emotion, building a real sympathy for his characters in between laughs. These maneuvers aside, Cabal’s unique blend of cold practicality and social ineptitude is altogether too much fun to let the novel go unfinished.

This novel will appeal to readers who enjoy fantasy, magical realism, high-stakes adventures and unconventional protagonists. “Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is well worth taking a chance on, or at least trying out the free preview on its Amazon page.