The Not-So-Greatest Show on Earth – A Review of The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

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Circuses and carnivals are a deep and powerful crucible of memories for a great many people, despite the variations across the globe. In the Philippines these memories equate to going to what is called a peria,from the Spanish feria, or fair. Like traveling carnivals and circuses in the United States and Europe, they set up rides and sideshows in an open field for a week or so during the summer, and then pack up and move on. I had been to precious few of those, since my mother didn’t entirely approve of them (the rides were notoriously unsafe, and the food was never quite as clean as she might have liked), but I do have some memories of them: the smell of pork barbecue and popcorn mingling in the air, and the whooshing and clanking of the rides.

However, the old-fashioned traveling carnivals, circuses, and their cousin the state fair seem to be dying out, as more and more people turn to technologies such as the Internet as their primary source of entertainment. In this interesting article from the 2009 issue of National Geographic, Garrison Keillor talks about the state fair with a sense of nostalgia. as if aware that, give or take a few decades, it will all be gone. As people turn increasingly to technology to entertain themselves, state fairs, carnivals, and circuses will gradually disappear.

The situation in books, however, is different. In novels the circus is definitely back in town, though not as a mirror image of the circuses and carnivals in people’s memories. The circus as interpreted in novels appears to have become significantly darker, significantly more evil and wicked, and significantly more mysterious. There are degrees, of course: Erin Morgenstern’s interpretation in The Night Circus is indeed mysterious and somewhat dark, but its purpose is relatively innocent, as opposed to the circus portrayed in Jonathan L. Howard’s The Necromancer.

Anyone familiar with the character of Dr. Faust (Goethe’s version is the most famous, but Thomas Mann and Christopher Marlowe both have their own versions), or at least with the concept of the Faustian deal, will recognize the core storyline at the heart of The Necromancer: a man named Johannes Cabal has made a deal with Satan in exchange for greater knowledge – except he has realized that, in order to reach his goal, he will need his soul back, and so he renegotiates with Satan for another deal. The deal is this: if he can take one hundred souls in the space of one year for Satan, he can have his soul back. In order to do this, Satan has allowed Cabal the use of an abandoned carnival as a means of attracting possible souls for collection. He has also given Cabal a budget (in the form of a lump of his own blood) as a source of power for the carnival and whatever else Cabal might deem necessary.

This, of course, sounds very intriguing. There is something to be said, after all, about using a carnival to collect souls, given how most of the typical associations one makes with a carnival are those of innocence and childhood. Even in Morgenstern’s Night Circus, the circus in question is hardly sinister, only a little odd. Cabal’s carnival, however, is another story: dark and twisted, with one singular purpose: allow Cabal a chance to gather the one hundred souls he needs in order to win his own soul back from Satan.

This is where trouble begins. Interesting as the concept might be, the rest of the novel just doesn’t seem as fun as that one idea. I was already getting a hint of that in the first one-third of the book, but I constantly let it slide. I was rather hoping, I suppose, that things would get more interesting down the line. I am, after all, a veteran of similar novels: The Fellowship of the Ring started out incredibly slow, but after I got through the initial slog, everything was pretty much great from then on out.

The Necromancer did not turn out to be that way. A large part of it has to do with Johannes Cabal himself. To be fair, he is quite a tolerable character – at least for the first one-third of the book. After that, he is just so utterly colorless that I really stopped caring about him after a certain point. It could be said that since he has no soul, he really can’t have much of a personality, but at the very least he should be interesting in his lack of a soul, which he isn’t. He only gets interesting again at the very last part of the book, when the reader finds out the real reason why he has gone to the lengths he has in order to discover the secrets of necromancy. Unfortunately, it is quite easy to guess by the first third or the middle portion of the book at the very latest just what that motivation is, so the impact of finding out is significantly reduced.

The other characters are rather interesting, but either do not hold the reader’s attention for very long, or are really side-characters and so disappear fairly quickly. The exception to this is Johannes’ brother, Horst. Horst is far more interesting than his brother, and though he is a bit of a jerk, he does prove to be quite the nice guy in the latter part of the book. In fact, reader sympathy is likely to increase for him even as the reader’s interest in Cabal decreases as the novel goes on. I think he is the only character who receives any real, perceptible character development, because Cabal really doesn’t change much for the reasons I gave above.

As for the members of the circus, it might be supposed they would provide the color that Cabal lacks, but they are not in the least fascinating. Their creation might be, to a degree, but otherwise they hardly hold the reader’s attention for very long. They are there, and they are part of the machine that allows Cabal to collect souls, but that is all. Some might stand out for a while, like Layla the Latext Lady, but otherwise they are as colorless as Cabal himself – rather sad, really, since people who work in carnivals are supposed to be some of the most intriguing and fascinating characters a reader could ever encounter in fiction.

Aside from the lack of any true strength in the characters (save for a few), the plot itself takes time to build, only becoming really interesting towards the latter third of the book. In fact, I rather think this book could have been a bit shorter, with a big chunk of the middle portion being taken out to make room for the action that comes towards the last part of the book. Now, while in some other novels this would not have been a problem, in this novel I find that it is. Most of the time the initial slog is devoted to world-building, which is perfectly fine by me, but in The Necromancer it doesn’t come off as very interesting. To be sure, Johannes comes across some rather funny characters (Rufus Maleficarus instantly springs to mind), but otherwise they are occasional highlights in a truly sloggy portion of the novel.

All in all, The Necromancer really is not a great variation on the Dr. Faust story, nor is it a great introduction to a series. The lead character simply isn’t strong enough to hold the reader’s interest, and much of the book isn’t quite fun to read, being as it is as colorless as the protagonist. It is only in the latter portion that anything interesting really happens, and when any sympathy for Cabal is built, which is rather unfortunate because I would have preferred to like Cabal at least by the middle portion of the novel so that I could go into the second book with some good cheer. As it stands, I don’t think I will be picking up the next book in the series without looking at it warily. It just might turn out to be better than the first book, but at the moment I am not very encouraged to read it anytime soon.

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