Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard
Some time ago, Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the Devil for the knowledge and skill to make him a better necromancer. He gave it up immediately rather than wait for death. He now feels this was a mistake; not only are satanic avatars drawn to him, interfering in his work, but soullessness itself is causing problems with the necromancy, making it hard to work scientifically. He wants his soul back; Satan, on the other hand, has no real interest in giving it. It sets a bad precedent, after all. However, he is willing to make a new deal: if Cabal will get him 100 souls in a year (get 100 people to sign contracts), he will get his soul back. If he fails, he dies and of course goes directly to Hell without passing go and collecting $200. As a tool, he gets an evil carnival (well, the bones (pun intended) of one; it never really got finished but Cabal is given access to a pool of Satanic power to put it together).
Of course, a soulless necromancer would not likely be a good candidate for a showman and Johannes Cabal, who doesn’t understand people at all, is an even worse choice than most. He needs help: an outgoing, social type who will be able to figure out what people will want to see. Fortunately, he knows someone who will fit the bill: his brother Horst. Unfortunately, Horst has spent the last eight years locked in a tomb in a remote graveyard, after Johannes panicked and fled the scene, leaving Horst locked in with an ancient vampire. That kind of thing can change a man. Into a vampire, for example. It can also make him a bit angry at the man who left him there and didn’t come back for eight years! Fortunately, Horst is a decent guy at heart and loves his brother enough to not want him to go to Hell.
For most of the next year Johannes gathers his victims from people who were likely going to Hell on their own (Horst occasionally nudges things in that direction as needed), but as the year ticks down to one final night with two souls still to go, will Johannes step over the edge and take the souls of someone good? Especially as the brothers find themselves in a town that seems lacking in their kind of people . . .
This book has a dark, but not grim, sense of humour. It’s never “laugh-out-loud”, but I did smile a lot. It would be easy to write Johannes Cabal off as a worthless, evil man, but there are hints throughout the story that he isn’t bad, per se, just unable to understand other people. His love for his brother is certainly there, especially towards the end. He could be evil, but . . . he could also turn aside from that track (pun intended).
Anyway, I really did enjoy this one, but it’s not for everyone. Cautiously recommended.
Sabriel by Garth Nix
This is a re-read, but not one I’ve written up before.
Sabriel lives in the kingdom of Ancelstierre, attending Wyverly College, “for young ladies of Quality”, not far from the Wall dividing Acelstierre from the Old Kingdom. The further away from the Old Kingdom you get, the less magic works. The result is that most of Ancelstierre is at about the tech level of our world (and to tell the truth, I think it is sort of our world, albeit under different conditions. Sabriel’s school uniform has Roman numberals, for instance, and the school name is printed in faux gothic lettering. It’s a different history, obviously, with different physics in some places, and possibly slightly different geography, though maybe not. There isn’t enough detail to figure it all out and it doesn’t really matter, anyway), while the Old Kingdom is basically medieval. Of course, when the wind is from the Old Kingdom, tech doesn’t work and those parts of Ancelstierre closest to the wall go back to medieval as well.
Sabriel’s father, known as Abhorsen, brought her out of the Old Kingdom when she was five, and arranged for her to attend Wyverly. He’s a necromancer, but not a Free Magic user (magic in this series is divided between Charter — safe for humans — and Free — not safe at all. In the Old Kingdom, places are kept safe from Free Magic by Charter stones, which are standing stones with Charter marks on them. And of course humans have Charter marks on them as well, or else they won’t be allowed into civilization. Necromancers can raise, bind, and destroy the dead, through the use of magic bells and by stepping into death and negotiating the river — and gates — therein); he binds the dead (and the Dead) and keeps people safe.
The story begins with a sending from Abhorsen, a dead creature bringing his sword and bells to Sabriel at Wyverly. Either he’s dead, in which case she is the new Abhorsen, or he lives but is trapped in death. Either way, Sabriel must go to the Old Kingdom and find out.
But there is a darkness at large in the Old Kingdom; a major returned Dead with an army of lesser shadows, breaking Charter Stones and unleashing more dead on the people. Before Sabriel can even reach her father’s house she is pursued by a Mordicant, a powerful dead spirit, and nearly killed.
At the house, she gains the aid of one of her father’s helpers, a Free Magic spirit in the shape of a cat, calling itself Mogget. Together, and with the aid of the warrior calling himself Touchstone, they must find and rescue Abhorsen, defeat the dark power, and save the Old Kingdom. Should be a walk in the park, right?
Nix is a brilliant writer, and this book is a strong beginning to a great series. Sabriel is a great hero, powerful but unprepared for what is thrust upon her, facing an even more powerful enemy with uncertain allies (Mogget cannot be trusted except with the collar that binds him; Touchstone is bothered by old memories of his part in the dark events of the past). It is, overall, a dark book, but not without hope or heroism.