Posted on October 5, 2010 by Eric Pollarine
Let me give you a scenario-
I love books, which should be fairly obvious, as I take a great deal of time explaining to you on here, as to why I like or what I like about books. Normally I stick to Zombies/Survival Horror, not because that is solely what I read, as my house is quite literally overstuffed with books; but because I know that genre. I don’t live it; you won’t see me preparing for an all out zombie apocalypse on television or anything. I don’t live and breathe by Max Brook’s “The Zombie Survival Guide” though to be completely honest, after I read it; I did have the sudden urge to purchase my fair share of survival gear. But for the most part, on all conventional levels, I know that specific trope/genre/sub-genre extraordinarily well. It is often predictable; in its very nature is a formula, which is nearly standard issue for all true zombie/survival horror stories. It doesn’t mean that it is not enjoyable, that there aren’t a lot of really great character driven stories out there- because I think, if you have read any of the reviews I’ve done here and elsewhere, you know, that I believe that I have helped pick out some of the better pieces in the annuls of the living dead. But, every once in a while, just every so often- I choose to read something that is completely unassociated with the “living” dead or zombies or having to defend yourself against homicidal post apocalyptic cannibalistic mutated savages. Around a year ago, my girlfriend and I were in one of the big box book retailers and we came across the new fiction section. There, in front of us, stood a rather interesting package, a beautiful design, cream colored jacket, black, woodcut illustration, big red X.
It was Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer, by Jonathan Howard, which sat on that shelf for approximately 15 seconds.
After skimming over the synopsis on the dust jacket, reading about the author and finally commenting to each other about the beautiful design, we decided to plunk down the 25.00 or so (as it was the hardcover version) to get the book. Now, upon completion of the book almost a year later- I can say that I, absolutely, have got to stop judging a book by its cover.
The Skinny on Cabal-
“Johannes Cabal, a brilliant scientist and notorious snob, is single mindedly obsessed in heart and soul with raising the dead…”
That’s the opening blurb on the jacket, and it does a fairly decent job of describing the character of Cabal. I am being serious; there isn’t too much going on in his head. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of wit and dry, very, very dry humor running around in the characters noggin, but if you were to crack him open like an egg, he wouldn’t hold more than maybe a few cups of exaggerated English “Stiff upper lip” tea and equal parts timid/pallid absurdist “Python-esque” one liner lumps of sugar. His snobbishness comes across in a way that doesn’t quite turn you off from the character, but seems to be forced throughout the story. Would Johannes be a real human being, and yes of course I know he’s not, and that it is, after all. a work of fiction, and the authors first (so there) I highly doubt that anyone, living, dead or undead would suffer the man’s company; Necromancer or not. In fact, as I was reading the book, I continually felt stiff. The book reads as if it were stiff, the dialogue felt a bit stiff, the character of Cabal is stiff, the authors vision of hell is stiff, so you get the point. We learn that Johannes Cabal sold his soul to learn the secrets of Necromancy, and now, needs a soul to carry out his latest “experiment,” I thought, “OK, this is something I can get behind, a little Faustian “deal with the devil” sort of morality play, nice. But as you linger on in the story, if you decide to finish the book, by around the 6th Chapter, you feel as if you know already where the story is going to go. Yes there are some surprises, like the circumstances in the game that Cabal is playing with the Devil for his soul- that’s pretty inventive, if you think that a demonic carnival, secretly enlisting and signing up souls as it goes from rural town to rural town is inventive. Can’t say that I do, and it seems that the author is clinging to a dream, or maybe a good idea not fully formatted, or simply riding the recent alt-history/ Steampnk/ neo-Victorian wave. So I am sorry to report, that anyway you slice it, Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer is just an interesting read, but one that is not really inventive or original and ultimately unsatisfying. I would certainly not put it up there with one of the best releases of the last few years, and if nothing else, get it from the library, save your cash for something else.
What did I say before-?
Jonathan Howard’s first book then is something that I just can’t endorse as being as great as some of the blurbs on the jacket claim it to be. I liked it, don’t get me wrong. I thought it was interesting, with a few very shiny moments of dialogue, but the truth is, and take this from someone who has read, literally, the very same story over and over and over again, (back to zombies again) I found that I knew where this book was headed before the story had even gotten fully underway. The motley cast of characters seem to be funny and clever enough, Cabal’s brother as vampire/reminder of failed experiments isn’t unique but handled well, though somewhat artificially used as a testament to how utterly cold and scientific that Cabal is, and also how he has a small heart of gold, and so on and so forth. And you can see completely where everything leads to. And I didn’t even give you enough to spoil the plot. And I should stop using “and” to start my sentences.
The determined souls who want to read it–
I think you should get it for yourself and decide, really, I do. To me it seems forced and unnatural, which I can only assume was either a bad byproduct of a good idea or the author’s intention to push its “English-ness” onto the reader. Maybe it is neither of those two ideas and is simply a forced and labored affair. I don’t know and I don’t care- as I quickly attempted to put some distance between myself and the book, for the sake of my back and the sake of my sanity. I took on the book as a review, because both this and the new “sequel” or “chapter” in Johannes Cabal’s story, Johannes Cabal: The Detective, were available to review, which will be up here as soon as I can get through it.
But I won’t lie to you; I am very hard to get through when it comes to “period” pieces, given my slightly more than confrontational disposition towards anything that even seems to hint at the new publishing buzz word of “Steampunk” I might even be a little harsher on the book than someone who has not already had failed expectations of what really could be a great genre in adult fiction. So again, get the book from the library and decide for yourself. Just don’t go buying the thing. Because if you’re like me, then you’ll quickly find yourself wishing you had picked up something else, like maybe that retrospective of Philip K. Dick, or even the latest something else instead- here’s to hoping the next time Johannes and I meet, it will be on better terms.
Review by Eric Pollarine