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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 September 2011
After reading The Fear Institute at a frantic pace, I picked this up straight away & read it in a matter of days. And now I'm speeding my way through book 2, unable to put that down either!

In times past, the infamous necromancer Cabal sold his soul to Satan in exchange for knowledge - knowledge to further his researches into conquering death. He has since found that owning a soul is necessary for his work, so somewhat dispassionately makes a further deal with the devil - if he can get 100 people to sign away their souls within a year, his own will be returned to him. And just to make things interesting, Satan provides him with an infernal carnival to help tempt the unsuspecting. This would be a wretched task for anyone but since Cabal's moral compass no longer points North, it's easier for him than most people - but Satan's determined not to make it too straightforward.

This charming book brings to mind a darker, more adult Terry Pratchett, combined with some very thorny ethical dilemmas. Like a vampire, it weaves a seductive charm but after a while, throws some unexpectedly thorny moral dillemas your way. Funny & thought-provoking with an iconic main character, this book is difficult to put down & constantly entertaining, with a couple of subtle references to H.P. Lovecraft - hints of things to come in book 3, which is set in a world realised by the master of eldrich fiction. It's unique, darkly amusing & very compelling.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 6 January 2015
“The Necromancer” is Jonathan L Howard’s debut novel, published back in 2009 and the first in an expanding series to feature Johannes Cabal, our titular necromancer, and his undead-but-charming brother Horst.

We begin with a season in Hell. Hell in this case, being the kind of insane pen-pushing bureaucracy that would give a Vogon squelchy dreams. Cabal has no time for bureaucracy. What he does have is a rather large gun, and a mission – to get his soul back so he can continue his mysterious Great Work. He sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the powers of necromancy, and now he wants it back.

But the Devil would not be out of place running a Vegas blackjack house, and everyone knows you can never win against the house. He sets Cabal a task, to collect 100 souls for Satan in exchange for the return of his own. And to help Cabal achieve this, he’s going to give him something to help him out and even the odds.

A carnival.

Yes, a bona-fide travelling fairground complete with sideshows, freaks and a demonic steam train to move it all around in. Cabal has a year to move his fairground around the country collecting as many souls as he can before time runs out and he loses his own soul forever.

If this all sounds like it could be from a game, well, yes. The narrative does owe a debt to Howard’s background as a games designer, but it also, and the author confesses it himself, owes something to Ray Bradbury’s other-worldly carnival in “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Which is no bad thing. Howard revels in the grotesque, the weird, and the theatrical much the same way Kim Lakin-Smith does in Cyber Circus, but while that was a dark and in places unsettling book, “The Necromancer” has a wry, warped sense of humour running though it, particularly in the meticulous Cabal’s interactions with both his brother and the recently-undeceased staff running his dark carnival.

The humour won’t be for everyone. In places it comes across as too clever for its own good, and comic fantasy can be hit or miss. Howard’s writing is an acquired taste, but fans of Pratchett and Jasper fforde will lap it up. And Cabal is, at least at first, a difficult protagonist to like, outshone at every turn by his more charming vampiric brother Horst, who reluctantly agrees to help him in his quest despite Johannes sealing him in a tomb for eight years after an earlier adventure went wrong. However, persist with it and the fractured humanity of the necromancer begins to seep through in little glimpses, notably in an affecting scene set in an abandoned and haunted station. Johannes Cabal does bad things, but it turns out he’s not such a bad guy, driven into conflict with his better instincts by his overwhelming desire to reclaim his soul. And the reason behind that desire is kept for a delicious twist right at the end of the book, so subtly telegraphed the reader almost doesn’t see it coming, but making perfect sense when it arrives.

It’s a clever book, arch and knowing, funny in places but more inclined to raise a wry chuckle than a roar of laughter. It wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, and beneath the veneer of wit and cynicism, at the core of the story there’s a little kernel of gold.

Like I said, not for everyone, but worth sticking with. You might find you enjoy it more than you thought you would. Give it a whirl!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 13 January 2012
I can't really extend my review past the two words I used in the title - this book is quite simply strange yet brilliant.

The book is cast with a bizarre set of flawlessly moulded characters straight out of a Tim Burton fairy tale, but Howard's clever descriptions and hooking plot lines really showcase his mad troupe of personas. Johannes Cabal himself is the perfect anti-hero: slimy and cheap enough to hate, but witty and clever enough to love.

The plot itself is simple enough, but is astutely intercepted with snippets of sheer genius. Howard strikes the perfect balance of a strong, clear yet humourous plot line. At times it will have you crying with laughter, and screaming at the ink in fury at others, but the overall result is a well-crafted and brilliant read. A must read for any fantasy lover, or a great place to start for those new to the genre!
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2010
Johannes Cabal, a brilliant scientist and notorious snob, is obsessed with raising the dead. Tormented by a dark and harrowing secret, he travels to the fiery pits of hell to retrieve his soul, long ago sold to the Devil. Satan, incredibly bored and hungry for a challenge, proposes a little wager: Johannes has one year to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will lose his forever. To keep things interesting, Satan generously throws in a traveling carnival to help Johannes collect on the bargain. With little time to lose, Johannes raises a crew from the dead and enlists his brother, Horst, a charismatic vampire, to be his right-hand man. Once on the road, Johannes and his troupe of reprobates cause mayhem at every stop. But are his tricks enough to beat the Devil at his own game?

From the blurb above, so far this book sounds like Tom Holt, or Terry Pratchett, or any other comedic fantasy author, right? No, definitely not! Jonathan L. Howard infuses Johannes Cabal the Necromancer with flavours from other authors and from films, but the book as a whole is unique and very, very funny. It has the same gruesome humor as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, but remains distinctive through the use of snappy one-liners and characters you'll love to hate.

The pacing is perfect. We start with an entertaining visit to Hell (a bureaucratic nightmare, with a pen-pushing clerk as a doorman). Then, the plot kicks into a higher gear and sweeps through a year of thrilling adventures as Johannes Cabal attempts to win his wager with Satan by running a twisted carnival. Howard gives us a sample of Cabal's attempts to collect souls, but doesn't overdo this aspect of the novel. He still spends time on character development and on other escapades, so that the reader never becomes bored.

Though Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is pitched mainly as comedic fantasy, it contains some extremely spine-tingling and creepy moments, especially the whole scene in the Druin crypt. Howard also takes us to some darker places. We watch with horror as a young lad is enticed to sign his soul away, and as a young mother is encouraged to commit infanticide.

Over the course of the novel we learn that Johannes Cabal is a Very Bad Man, yet he remains endearing to the reader. From his inept social skills to his way with sarcasm, Cabal shines from every page. In particular, his exchanges with his brother Horst virtually crackle with snark:

"Given my profession, being careful is what separates the successes from the failures."
"Ha! What makes you think you're such a success, Johannes?"
"Because I'm not tied to a post, up to my knees in bonfire."

The other characters are just as memorable, from the dozy zombie pair Dennis and Denzil who drive the train, to Bobbins, one of Cabal's nefarious creations ("...the result of some of Cabal's tinkering with the basic `a rag, a bone, a hank of hair' formula; in this case by the addition of a tin of Brasso metal polish. As a result everything that Bobbins did, he did brightly").

The only disappointment is that the world building is almost non-existent. We never learn whether this is a bizarre alternate version of our world, or if it's another world entirely. Howard focuses so tightly on his fabulous mix of characters, and on building the carnival into an entity that lives and breathes, that we do not see anything beyond this. I would love to see more of the world that Howard has created.

Luckily, it appears that a second novel in this series is on the way, which I now look forward to with great excitement. This is the sort of book that, having finished it -- even in the wee small hours of the morning -- you want to wake up all your friends and insist they begin it immediately. In fact, I insist you all go and grab a copy -- now!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 September 2011
Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the secrets of necromancy. A little later, he decides he wants his soul back. So he goes to Hell and asks. Satan tells him that if he can get 100 people to sign their souls over to him, Cabal gets his soul back. Cabal sets up a travelling carnival, gets the help of his older vampire brother Horst, conjures up some things as attractions and staff, and sets out/
The book is basically all of that happening. I like the idea behind it. It's not often we see people who have entered into a Faustian contract, decide they want out, skip the queues and the paperwork to get into hell, and makes a bet with the devil. A fun and original concept.
I like the little sidestories that document what happens at each stop on the way. It doesn't document the whole year, as that would take too long, but it gives you a very good idea of what happens at every stage.
I liked the characters. I think Horst Cabal was my favourite because of the way he handled his brother and the fact that said brother is trying to get 100 people to sign forms agreeing to eternal damnation. They were all well characterised and easy to distinguish. However, there were a few characters that appeared for about three pages, then were never heard of again. All right, these three pages described who they were and how they died, but still it would have been nice if they'd have been cleverly worked in somewhere along the line.
The humour in this seemed to come and go. It had a extremely funny opening, where Cabal summons a demon and has an arguement with it about how he should have correctly summoned it, with Cabal saying that the demon was there now and therefore it didn't matter, but then the humour died down, came back, and went and came back throughout. The writing was third person, kept the book going, but kept you slightly distanced from the characters.
With the ending there was, I'm not entirely sure how a sequel could be produced. However, there's a whole series, and I'll read book two some day.
Overall: strength 3 tea to an original and somewhat funny book.
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on 20 June 2011
Every once in a while you stumble on a book that's just a good fit.

I like horror, I like fantasy, I like humour and I like fictional pastiche. "Johannes Cabal the Necromancer" is a humourous horror-fantasy novel which preserves its own identity while nodding - with admittedly varying degrees of success - to other comic and horror writing.

Most of all I like good writing, and this is a good story admirably well-told.

I've run into a couple of writers recently who seem to have plumped for a career in fantasy writing because it seems to be a lucrative path of least resistance. For me they fall at the first or second hurdle. There's a dismal lack of real interest in and affection for fantasy in its own right, and they approach genre like a box of story element Lego, on the assumption with the right box-lid picture everyone can build the Eifel Tower. Also, the more cynical comedy fantasy writers just aren't Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, the men to whose bank balances they clearly aspire, and who both evidently have genuine genre joy.

Jonathan L. Howard's debut was like a blast of fresh air of a dull, muggy day.

His hero, Jonathan Cabal, is an urbane but detached twenty-something scientist who wants, above all else, to conquer death. He has sacrificed everything, principally his social skills, to achieve this, and basically become Jeffery Combs as Herbert West, which is a connection made much more obviously in the sequel "Johannes Cabal the Detective". At the outset Cabal challenges Satan, the current mortgage-holder on his immortal soul, to a classic "Devil Came Down to Georgia" bet. If Cabal can get 100 people to sign over their souls to eternal damnation, he can have his own back. He even gets his vampire older brother and the Funfair from Hell, transported by an appropriately satanic steam engine, to help him. This is the jumping-off point for a series of sketches about the evil funfair workers and their punters, leading up to a fairly predictable Final Confrontation.

It's not a complete success. The main story is a bit thin and really just an excuse to string a series of short story ideas and sketches together. The thing is, as a horror portmanteau it's in a great tradition of British horror anthology films which string self-contained tales along what's often a much ropier story thread. One of the main moments of out-and-out pastiche pays homage to Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans's Molesworth character, and doesn't really work. It starts well but chickens out. I'd have preferred the whole story in Molesworth-speak. Chiz chiz. The other main problem is the inconsistent period setting. Most of the time it seems to be a Molesworth friendly 1950s England, but occasionally it's more Edwardian and then suddenly a minor character bursts into incongruous modern "street" speech. You get me?

Flaws aside, though, it's a well-written page turner. It's not scary, and it's not often laugh out loud funny, but there are lots of good ideas and plenty of slow smiles.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 January 2015
I will start this review by stating just how well this book has been written. It is witty, the dialogue is sharp and the imagination behind it has served up the kind of writing that I normally love to read about... with one exception.

Sadly, the reason why I couldn't get into this book was because of the insanely-unsympathetic protagonist. No matter how much I wanted to like Johannes Cabal and root for his cause, I find it impossible to grow attached to a character who's primary goal in this book is to condemn a hundred souls to hell and eternal torment.

Maybe if he had only gone after souls who were cut and dry evil I might have been able to get on board, but when a lot of the people he got to sign their souls away were just borderline sinners, I found it a hard pill to swallow. At one point in the book a case of infanticide was used as leverage to get a soul, and that is not something I can get behind in a character even in a fictional novel that was at times as funny as this.

So sadly at the end of the novel, even with the expected twist and the final unveiling of the motivation behind all of the acts in this book there was still nothing that redeemed the protagonist in my eyes. However, as I have stated this book is incredibly well written and I am sure that I will read other works by this author in the future, just maybe not with the same protagonist.
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VINE VOICEon 7 February 2011
There are similarities in writing style between this book and the work of Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next),The Big Over Easy (Nursery Crime Adventures 1),Shades of Grey etc), so has obvious appeal straight away.

The plot is fairly simple, and moves along nicely without getting too bogged down in unnecessary detail. As another reviewer mentioned; the end leaves us open for a second book in this series, which I will be keeping an eye out for. This book though does finish it's own story nicely for those who don't want to read the whole series.

I was slightly put off at the start of this book with the author's overuse of "big" words. I think if there's a simpler way of expressing something, then it is better than using the longest, most obscure word you can find; it makes it harder for people to read if they don't know the words being used, and have to look them up each time (although this is so much easier on the Kindle Wireless Reading Device, Wi-Fi, Graphite, 6" Display with New E Ink Pearl Technology). As I read more though, I came to the conclusion that the "big" words were actually essential to Johannes Cabal's character.

I really enjoyed this book. If you like Jasper Fforde's work, then I'm sure you will enjoy this too. Recommended.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A modern audience is always looking for something new to enjoy so when this offering (or perhaps sacrifice might be the better term) landed, the book blurb told me something special was going to happen. Part Necromantic adventure, part comedy and part Faustian challenge this tale takes the best that all have to offer and brings it together in such a way that the reader will easily be enchanted within Howard's snare.

But will the baser aspects of Cabal overrule his higher senses or is everything fair game in his pursuit of knowledge, a novel that will keep you guessing to the last page and one that will have you at times loving the protagonist or even loathing him in equal measure. Definitely a novel that I'm recommending as it was a pure joy to read.
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on 16 February 2013
Johannes is a despicable character in many ways, but entertainingly so. No, he's not the "charming villain" as this particular villain comes from an almost entirely emotionless, morality free and scientific mindset. Like a child, he makes a bunch of logical points and uses them to come to an almost completely illogical conclusion.

And therein lies the entertainment. In the beginning, I kept reading mainly because I liked his style (a sort of dark Pratchett) enough. I was curious to see where this was going. I also enjoyed the setting, which is anachronistic throughout. In some ways it's a modern world (at one point, the characters mention heavy metal music) but it's also stuck in a time of travelling freak shows and burlesque entertainment, and references and characters veer between the late 1800s and the late 1900s.

As the plot approaches a climax, Howard brings to the fore a depth in his writing that I personally hadn't noticed yet, but which had been there all the way through the book. I wouldn't want to keep describing the end of the book, but suffice it to say I am very excited to read the next in the series.
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