Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Curious Read

Book Reviewed: Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

I finished this book three days ago, and I'm still not sure exactly what to make of it. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but in the end, it left me feeling kind of empty. It had all the makings of an entertaining read, but it didn't do much to fulfill me on an emotional or intellectual level.

Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer is a curious little book. In the beginning, the title character goes down to Hell to talk Satan into giving him his soul back. He gave it up in order to learn the art of necromancy years earlier. Cabal, who dabbles in all kinds of science and believes solely in cold logic, is forced to make a deal with the devil. If he uses an evil carnival to sign over 100 new souls to Satan in one year, then he will get his own soul back. Obviously, this takes a lot of work and very little pleasure on Cabal's side, and he is constantly foiled by both external and internal forces. The first half of the book roughly chronicles the first 360-some days, while nearly the entire second half focuses only on the last two or three.

For me, this set up could have exploded with readerly possibilities. There's so much to be wrestled with - Hell's interference, the inherent distrust in a crew made up of the dead and nonexistent, Cabal's own conscience - that I expected a lot more than what ended up happening. I felt like certain questions of morality and mortality were going to be brought up, and then just as they seemed to flash across the page, they disappeared. I think Howard is talented, and he's certainly inventive. But I'm not sure he himself knew exactly what to do with the basic problem he set up: the wrongness of persuading people to give up their souls. In creating the characters he did, Howard attempted to deal with this problem without actually causing the kind of (appropriate) chaos the story needed.

Johannes Cabal is a definite anti-hero; he's one of the most morally corrupt protagonists I've ever encountered (although not so much by choice as by nature). This means our moral voice comes from somewhere else. In this case, it's Horst Cabal, Johannes's charming and honest brother. Eight years earlier, Horst was turned into a vampire during one of Johannes's experiments-gone-wrong. Now, hoping to be returned to his human form, he goes along with his brother's schemes. However, Horst has the heart that Johannes doesn't. He only allows already-corrupt people to face damnation, and in the end, he's the only thing coming between his brother and evil intent. Yet, despite how much I couldn't help but like Horst, he never felt like much more than a convenient plot device, especially at the end. I felt let down by both his and Johannes's character development, which really dissatisfied me as reader.

This book does have occasionally wonderful passages and lines, particularly when it hits emotionally powerful situations, particularly in moments between the brothers. The section in which Johannes goes to get Horst managed to be funny, sad, and frightening all at once. In that scene, Howard does a great job at making allusions to the horrible mistake of the past that damned Horst while balancing the current tension between the brothers. I also quite liked an early chapter in which Cabal helps a trapped ghost make it to the other side, one of the only moments of any kind of humanity we see from him.

Unfortunately, what should have been the book's most powerful and devastating scene in the penultimate chapter ended up feeling a little too slapdash due to the scenes leading up to it, as Horst confronts Johannes at the final hour. This misbegotten scene also brought up the problematic questions I had throughout the book: If Johannes Cabal is missing his soul, then how does he have any kind of emotional or moral capability at all? How can Horst change his brother if he's missing the thing needed to lead to that change? These questions seemed pretty insignificant as I read the book, but they really began to bother me by the time I hit the end.

And, oh that ending. This summer, Howard released the sequel to this book: Johannes Cabal, the Detective (actually, it looks like these Cabal books are the first two of a series), which must answer to the giant information dump we get at the end of Necromancer. On the very last page, we find out the reason why Cabal wanted his soul back so badly. And while I get why Howard left it to the absolute end like that in order to properly tell this story, I still felt cheated by it. I think books in a series still need to stand by themselves as great works, and with that ending, this book kind of refused to stand on its own, which annoyed me.

So there you go. I'm still not sure what to make of Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer. I enjoyed the set-up, some of the brotherly interactions, and a handful of great scenes. But in the end, I wasn't satisfied by what I'd experienced, and it left the whole thing feeling kind of flat. The book itself is a little too much like its protagonist: a lot of flash, no soul, and with some occasional emotion that didn't feel earned. Curious indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I guess I should add that this book is meant to be campy, and it was that aspect that I enjoyed. But I think it tried too hard to question morality in the midst of the camp, and Howard couldn't quite pull of that dual task. That being said, I wouldn't mind reading the sequel, which apparently brings back some of the minor characters from this one and appears to be more fun.

    Also, I have to admit that I love how this book had no clear time setting. This world just existed, and even though it seemed to take place in a more contemporary setting, it had a lot of Victorian elements. In other words, it's steampunk, a genre I've got a burgeoning interest in exploring.