Here's a book review of Johannes Cabal - the Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard, which I wrote for Vector in the summer of 2009 and never got round to posting here:
Johannes Cabal has made a deal with the devil. He's already sold his soul; the deal is to win it back. Cabal has one year to claim 100 other souls, and Satan's even going to throw in the means with which to claim them. Soon Cabal is in charge of a travelling carnival, with something to tempt every punter.
But Cabal has obstacles in his way: rival villains and wizards, concerned local residents and his own vampiric brother. And he can only use his dark powers sparingly; they're linked to a ball of black blood down in Hell that shrinks every time he performs a spell.
There's all the makings of a rich and lively adventure here, but sadly it never quite works. The ball of black blood, for example, is forgotten as soon as it's introduced. Rather than curbing Cabal's efforts, he seems to do just what he likes.
Nor the year's deadline feel much of a ticking clock. Cabal sets up his carnival, claims his first victims and makes excuses for a few more. The middle chapters are unconnected episodes: Cabal getting caught in a hell dimension, or the carnival as seen by a small boy. Then, without much sense of time passing, or how the carnival and its staff have developed, we skip to the end and a race for the last two victims. There's no sense of time passing, of the seasons changing, of the strain Cabal is under. In fact, while he may get a bit cross when inconvenienced, there's little sense that events really affect him.
Cabal's brother, Horst, acts as his conscience. The vampire struggling to go without blood is not a hugely original idea. There's no new spin on the character here. Horst chides Cabal and helps save a few worthy souls, but is powerless to sway his brother. The later stages of the book would have worked better had Horst had more influence, or suggested Cabal is more conflicted than he lets on.
As it is, we don't feel any great pressure on Cabal. And to be honest, until the last couple of pages we're given little reason to root for him, either. He's pompous, arched and sarcastic without ever quite straying into wit. That in itself is a major problem for what's meant to be a darkly comic novel. It simply isn't all that funny, dramatic or original.
The denouement hangs on whether Cabal will claim the souls of two poor, innocent women to meet his deadline. But with almost no indication of his having any scruples, this hardly works as a crisis of character.
And yet the last two pages reveal why Cabal sold his soul in the first place, and why to reclaim it again he's gone to such effort and given up so much. There's the first hint of a much more complex, conflicted and interesting character there. One who may well support a continuing series.