Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute

by Jonathan L. Howard


Fantasy isn't the most time sensitive genre and fantasy novels tend to age well, but as the world lurches from one global financial crisis to another the theme of irrational fear seems especially appropriate for the novel's release in 2011. Johannes Cabal is busy being devious and aloof when three men turn up to interrupt his plans for perfecting the art of raising the dead. Messrs Shadrach, Corde and Bose are hunting down the Phobic Animus, which is what they call the spirit of irrational fear, and they want Cabal to guide them in their search.

They tempt the necromancer with the offer of the key to the Dreamlands, so he agrees to accompany them on their quest. The four of them journey through a strange landscape formed from the stuff of dreams, although it's real enough for those people who inhabit it. Cabal isn't too concerned about defeating fear. He's going for his own reasons, and he's prepared to sacrifice the others in order to save himself, should he need to. And in a land of unlikely geography, freshly ruined cities, sea monsters the size of small counties, and all manner of strange and voracious beasts he's likely to need all the sacrificial decoys he can find.

The unreality of dream worlds is hard to make work, because there's always the suspicion that the characters will wake up and find everything has been fixed. But they're not actually dreaming, so the threats they face are as scary and potentially lethal as they are bizarre. Lovecraftian horrors lurk around corners, and the rules of reality in the Dreamlands are twisted so that readers are left disoriented. But weird is what Cabal does best, so he sails through their escapades with his mordant sarcasm and misanthropic ill-humour intact, keeping his cool in the face of eldritch deities and homicidal kittens alike. The setting is well suited to wrong-footing readers: how can you tell which fears are rational and which aren't when everything is unfamiliar?

A ghoul who knows Cabal by name keeps turning up, and the necromancer worries that he's attracted the attention of a god not known for its benevolence. There's more to this adventure than the idealistic quest of a bunch of foolish men, and it's up to Cabal to work it out so he can escape the Dreamlands intact. He finds his companions irritating, but his dry taunts pepper the story with lots of humour. It's funny, clever and exciting until we reach chapter 14, which is all of those things and also brilliantly tragic in ways I can't explain in detail without spoiling the surprise. And even after this astonishing chapter Jonathan L. Howard hasn't done messing with our minds, packing in a few more crafty twists before topping the book off with a shock ending.

If I hesitate to say this is the best Johannes Cabal book yet, it's only because they're all very good. This novel is slightly less steampunk in style than Johannes Cabal The Detective and a little more storybook fantasy, since it goes into the realms of people's imaginations which tend to be dominated by a more distant, technicolour past: pirates, swashbuckling adventurers, wizards in towers, dark woods and ancient ruins abound. Cabal takes on fear and knocks it for six with his characteristic disdain and wit. It's a triumph of intellect over everything else, and this ruthless, self-centred grave creeper makes it all look so much fun.

20th September 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Male Protagonist  

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
More about Jonathan L. Howard


Mr Polydory     24th March, 2012 07:57am

Having recently read this book and the previous adventure of Messr Cabal, I found that the writing seemed completely different from the previous two excursions to the point that it seemed that the The detective had been written by somebody else.

Ros     24th March, 2012 15:08pm

The setting is very different from the first two books, I agree. I didn't think the character of Johannes or the type of humour was all that far apart, though, and that's what keeps the continuity.