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Death Magic

Just finished Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer today, on a friend’s recommendation—not as a good read, exactly, but as a useful resource for Fairyland, since the plot revolves around a literal and moderately elaborate deal with the devil.

It proved not as useful as I’d hoped. As a work devoted to tying together the classical elements of fairytales and deals with the devil, it validates many of my conclusions but doesn’t really stand out from the crowd when it comes to examples. I mined a good, usable quote from it, however, as Satan and Cabal resolve their wager:

“As to the wager, it is no such thing [says Satan]. There was nothing in the rules that said I couldn’t make things more interesting if I saw fit. I saw fit.”
“Don’t be fatuous,” replied Cabal. “There were no rules in the first place.”
“Then you have nothing to complain about.”
“Fine. Then I claim the period of one year to be a Plutonian year.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“A Plutonian year. That’s two hundred and forty-nine terrestrial years. Approximately.” He crossed his arms. “You don’t have a monopoly on facetious interpretations.”

A strong candidate for a chapter starter for Rule 3: Details Unspecified are Open to Any Interpretation. Now I just have to decide whether I prefer that or Homer Simpson’s wish for a turkey sandwich, and whether to try to work in both. Decisions, decisions.

As a book, Cabal is also passable but not all I’d hoped. I appreciate the author’s respect for the classical tale of deals with the devil, especially in light of how he puts a spin on the old tropes by making his protagonist thoroughly villainous. The balance between novelty and fidelity is a narrow one. On the other hand, Howard is too much in love with his own turns of phrase. His sardonic wit and his thick use of superlatives and grotesquerie remind me of Pratchett, but Howard tries too hard. Where Pratchett is clever, Howard is affected. Close, but no cigar.

But then, this is also Howard’s first novel, after a career at computer games. (!) I recall that Pratchett’s first several books were positively lousy, so there is hope yet for great things. And none too soon—Pratchett’s fans already mourning his loss to Alzheimer’s—prematurely, in my opinion, but it’s still reassuring to know promising understudies wait in the wings. Much better than Jim Butcher’s potboilers.

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