Science fiction and fantasy
Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute
by Jonathan L. Howard
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
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Review © Ros Jackson
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