let's be honest though howard sold the shit out of that

You should read Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

Looking for a new book/series this summer? I urge you to check out this awesome dark fantasy novel which frankly could do with some more attention. Let’s take a look.

Okay, so what is this book even about? Lay down the plot for me.
A man once sold his soul to Satan for enlightenment into the secrets of necromancy. Years later, he realizes he needs his soul to continue his research, so he walks into Hell to negotiate it back. Satan, who loves a good wager and was getting bored anyway, agrees that if the necromancer can get 100 people to sign their souls over to damnation, he gets his own soul back. Oh, and he has exactly one year to do it. But Satan’s a reasonable guy, he wants this to be fun, so he gives the necromancer a train-traveling demonic carnival to assist with the soul-collecting. And so a year of nefarious carnival nights begins.

Sounds cool. And how’s our protagonist going to handle that?
Oh, terribly. A scientist of more principles than morals and who interacts with another person maybe once every few months, Johannes Cabal is mostly unperturbed to be collecting so many souls, but almost completely at a loss as to how to run a carnival. Acerbic, amoral, clever, precisely efficient, and dressed almost entirely in black, he’s not the smiling face you’d want to see at the head of a carnival, and he’s certainly not the guy who has a clear grasp on what most people find “fun and exciting”. But he’s nothing if not stubborn and determined, and he has a goal to reach and if this is a step on getting to that goal, then he’ll find a way.

Wait, so our protagonist is an amoral necromancer, and we’re reading about his quest to get 100 people to sign over their souls to Hell with the help of a demonic night carnival?
I know, isn’t it great?

And are we supposed to cheer this guy or hope he loses or what?
Well, that will really be up to you as you read. But I’d say that for most people there are opportunities for both along the way. Either way, I think you’ll be content with how it all turns out, excepting a few unfortunate events.

Alright, sounds neat. Anyone else along for the ride?
Accompanying Johannes on his little endeavor is Horst. I’ll admit I’m torn about how much to say about Horst, because his situation and relation to Johannes are wonderful and appealing, and it wouldn’t exactly be spoilery to say. But you’ll learn all these things in the same chapter you first meet him in (chapter 3, you hardly have to wait), and it’s a great chapter so I don’t want to ruin any of it. Johannes recruits Horst early on because he has no clue how to run a carnival or what will attract people, and he believes the more social man does. Horst has hesitations and generally disapproves of the whole deal, but he has certain motivations for helping Johannes succeed (and for keeping an eye on the younger man), and so he agrees.

Okay, those dudes sound cool. Any cool ladies?
Though many characters show up in the book along the way, I’d say there are only a few who are particularly “main character-ish”. Sadly, only one of these is female. And I’m going to upfront and honest now and say that her time in the book is a little small. All the same, Leonie Barrow is important, smart, caring, and takes no shit. She and her dad get involved in the later chapters of the book, just in time for things to get really interesting as the year comes to an end and the carnival looks at its last days and Cabal at his last contracts. And though her time in this book is sadly short, she comes back for a wonderfully much larger role in the second book.

Wait, there’s a second?
Yep. And a third book. And soon to be a fourth! (Not to mention a small but growing handful of short stories)

But this all seems like a rather contained plot. Where does it go from here?
Yep, for the most part the first book is wrapped up nice and neatly by the end. But Cabal still has many adventures to get through before reaching his ultimate goal. The other books and short stories contain entirely different plots – and even a bit of genre-hopping. Johannes Cabal the Detective (2nd) is something of a steampunk detective story as Cabal and Leonie run into some suspicious murders aboard a luxury airship. Johannes Cabal and the Fear Institute (3rd) has our protagonist leading an expedition into the Lovecraftian Dreamlands to find and kill fear itself.

And the fourth you mentioned?
That is spoiler territory, my friend.

What, even the title?
But hey, it’s due to come out in September, so now is a great time to get into the series!

Well, okay. Anything else you want to mention?
One of the things I love most about these books is the language and the style of the writing. It’s fun, it’s smooth, it’s observational, it has a rockin’ vocabulary, and, yes, it will make you feel things. There will be emotions and they may sneak up on you if you aren’t careful. Is dark humor your thing? Well, this book has it in spades (I am still laughing about the “Tricky shot” croquet scene, I am a terrible person). Even the chapter titles are fun, and each comes with a neat little drawing of an object or two relevant to the chapter.

So, to recap,

  • An amoral villain protagonist
  • A book about a demonic night carnival
  • Fun and interesting characters who play well off each other
  • Dark humor for miles
  • Great vocabulary
  • More books and short stories, so there’s more to check out if you like the first one
  • I don’t remember how I came across it but this was the post/fanart that originally let me know about the series and made me pick it up, so that seems important for me to credit, and also look at that artwork

The series is by English author Jonathan L Howard and can be purchased on e-readers. I know physical copies are much more elusive (at least in the US, probably not as much in the UK) so you may have to look around a bit or be sure to check with your local stores and libraries to see if they have it or can request it.