The cover copy of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer erroneously, I think, compares Jonathan L. Howard's new picaresque horror-comedy to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the magisterial historical fantasy by Susanna Clarke. This comparison seems based solely on the fact that both books feature magicians and footnotes. But where Clarke's a world builder, Howard's best at making set-piece scenes; where Clarke constructs elaborate epic-grade plots, Howard's book moves forward with a shambling and footloose episodic pace; and where Clarke loving details the minute mechanics of her fantasy realm, Howard gleeful mashes up genres, glaring anachronisms, tone-shifts, and downright wacky humor into something held together more by momentum than logic. For my money, the strong point of comparison would be the Pratchett and Gaiman comedy Good Omens, with its gag-laden Python-meets-Omen plot of celestial bureaucracies, bumbling witchfinders, and so on.
The high-concept premise of Cabal is Faust meets Something Wicked This Way Comes. Only this time, the readers should be cheering for the evil circus rather than the soul-fodder.
The titular hero, necromancer and socially maladjusted jerk Johannes Cabal, cut a deal with the devil. It was standard dark-knowledge-for-soul dealie, but one of the unforeseen side-effects of soullessness, a local suspension of reliable causality, has put a real halt to Cabal's necrological researches. Consequently, Cabal goes to Hell to get his soul back. Being a sporting sort, Satan ends up agreeing to a wager: If Cabal can sign up 100 souls for His Infernal Majesty within the agreed timeframe, then Cabal can have his own soul back. To help Cabal out, Satan even gives him use of a sinister traveling circus, apparently one of several such soul-snatching circuses operating in the living world at any given time.
For advice on handling the rubes, Johannes calls on his estranged brother Horst. There's a bit of bad blood there as Horst is a vampire than Johannes trapped in a particularly foul crypt years ago. Still, Horst has always been more sensitive the emotional lives of others and he's not such a bad sort. Johannes then uses his powers to resurrect his staff and whip together some freakish performers. Decked out with props and crew, Johannes hits the open road (or rails, as it were).
Along the way Cabal will run afoul of an army of mad Cthulhu cultists, poorly constructed pocket universes, the ghost of a WW I soldier, disgruntled demonic militarists, damned bureaucrats, curious ex-police detectives, corrupt local politicians, and more.
Howard's writing style is firmly in the tradition of other UKian genre jokesters. Aside from the Pratchett and Gaiman connection, there's something of Douglas Adam's quirkiness about the whole endeavor. This approach, which piles up one off-kilter concept after another until the narrative just sort of ends, has some serious flaws. Often, the incidents and writing feel rushed. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of having been more influenced radio (The Goons) and television (the 60s and 70s Brit comedy boom), comedy, but these books seem to have an "all-surface" quality to them. The fun of these novels is their rapid pace, unpredictable plotting, and snappy style. This unquestionably delivers the ha-has, but it sacrifices a certain depth of characterization and emotional impact. But isn't that kind of like complaining that the vegetarian options at a BBQ joint are lacking? What did you think you were getting? Howard works the sub-genre well and he even adds a bracing dash of bitter misanthropy in the form Cabal, who is mostly a faux-baddie but occasionally manages to do something genuinely and thrilling heartless. He also manages to shift the tone a bit, including some scenes that flirt with real emotional weight. Both touches are welcome additions to this type of book.
Light and likable, with some nice hints of gloom, Howard's book is currently slated for a July release where it should find favor beach readers looking for something a little more eccentric. Doubleday's the publisher, the hardback is going to set you back 25 clams.