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Fantasy Review: ‘Johannes Cabal the Necromancer’ by Jonathan L Howard

Johannes Cabal already sold his soul to the devil.  He did it years ago, without regret, in order to gain the secrets of necromancy.  The problem is he belatedly realized he needs it back.  Not because he is worried about his soul, but his experiments just are not working without.  So down to hell he travels to get it back.  A wager is offered; a wager is accepted.  Johannes must round up one hundred souls, signed on the dotted line, to get his own back.  He has one year to do it, and a traveling carnival to do it with.

Cabal is not a nice guy.  He is not a ‘bad guy’ per say, that would imply caring about others in some way.  But if people are in his way, he pushes them out of it.  Knowing he needs someone to help him figure out other people, he brings on his brother and the Cabal Bros Carnival is born.   Between the two of them a hundred souls may just be doable.

Obviously a mixture between’ Faust’ and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes,’ the author crafted a very enjoyable tale here.  Always a bit tricky to do with an unlikable protagonist, it was Cabal’s path of discovery when it came to basic human nature that drove the story.  The writing is above average, and the meta references were subtle enough that they would stand out like a sour thumb if a reader didn’t know the source.  While mostly focused on the travels of the carnival a few interesting diversions were included, with a funny little duel with a megalomaniac warlock providing something different.

This is Cabal’s story throughout, though his brother has surprising depth for his low amount of page time.  Toward the end an adversary of sorts is added, but he provides us more insight into Cabal than he ever develops as a character.  The denizens of hell on the other hand are entertaining throughout.  The devil is crafty, but bored in hell.  Demons are powerful but petty.  And a paperwork queue just to get into hell provided me with laughs more than once.
For a book about the collection of souls there is very little soul collection present.  We see Cabal work the first stop of his horror show, and from there see almost nothing until the end of the year.  I can’t decide if I like this decision or not; on one hand it certainly keeps unnecessary details from turning the book into a slog, on the other the author is clever enough I think I would have enjoyed seeing how some of the rubes were tricked.

 Cabal is a clever man throughout, and occasionally even becomes likable, so I found myself rooting for him by the end.  When he does something truly horrible, it actually shocked.  It also led to an ending as good as anything I could have hoped for.  Some parts were foreshadowed fairly heavy for the reader, but I think most will still find a few surprises.

This was a quick read, and not a deep read.  But it was a very entertaining read by an above average writer.  It works just fine as a stand-alone, though it does have two sequels at the time of this review.  Strangely enough, the second book seems to be in steampunk style, which was not seen at all in this book.  Huh, guess I will find out eventually.

4 stars.


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