I’m delighted to find another modern fantasy writer whose work I like well enough to track down the sequels to the first in the trilogy, and that’s saying something given I haven’t had much luck with ‘first novels’ in the past.
Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for greater ability in his chosen career, necromancy. Unfortunately, that very soullessness is interfering with his ability to conduct the magic necessary for necromancy. Who knew that lacking that component was so crucial to dealing with the dead? At the start of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, Cabal enters Hell to attempt a recovery of his soul. This being Hell and the deed holder being Satan, not surprisingly his endeavor is not as easy as Cabal had hoped. As with all stories based on the basic Faust legend, any deal with Satan goes beyond the basic “no free lunch” precept to “don’t sign anything until you’ve read the fine print” with, well, a demonic vengeance. Satan agrees to a bet: Cabal gets his own soul back only if he collects 100 souls for Satan within a year. To sweeten the deal, Satan throws in a carnival with which to attract potential customers in the soul-reaving arena, and a generous “bankroll” of demonic magic.
Unfortunately, the carnival has been left disassembled and unattended on a siding since the last time Satan made a similar bet with another person in straits similar to Cabal, some decades earlier. Not only that, Cabal himself is no showman, preferring the solitude of his own home and his own basement laboratory. Nevertheless, with the aid of his vampire brother Horst, Cabal manages to gather almost enough souls…well, I’ll stop there, although the fact that there are two sequels kinda gives away the ending of this book, at least partially: Cabal does live to return home.
Pacts with the Devil? Hellish carnivals? Hell as bureaucratic morass? Great fun for me, especially since I appreciate a book with a well-written antihero, and I like dark humor. There’s a hint of steampunk in this book, which strengthens in the second book, Johannes Cabal the Detective. It’s not the most complex book out there, which may be a recommendation for a lot of people! Overall, it reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and American Gods. What to read next? Well, I’d say start with Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, especially since Howard himself admitted that was an inspiration to him.
Now, off to find the third in the trilogy…