Sunday, 27 May 2012

Johannes Cabal: Jonathan L Howard

Buying books on-line is a crapshoot of a very particular kind. You don't have the sense of physicality which comes with humping a wad of books over to the cash register and paying for them. Instead you're seeing a new writer, thinking "That looks interesting" and buying a whole lump of his books because, when you get right down to it, books are stupidly cheap for what they are and why the hell not? Then the box shows up at the door and you realize you've bought a lot more books than you would have bought if you'd been in a shop. After the usual delay, you finally get round to reading one of the books and you realize you don't like this writer's work at all, and that you've just wasted the cost of an evening's drinking for the dull disappointment of one book you don't like and three or four others that you know you wouldn't like so why even bother reading them?

I know all of this, and yet I go on buying new books in clumps through some maniacal combo of outdated preoccupations with saving postage and lunatic optimism that this time things will be different. 

And, to be honest, because sometimes I buy a whole bunch of books by someone who turns out to be pretty good.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer; The Detective; and The Fear Institute are not, by any stretch of the imagination, truly great books. But they are very well written. Howard's a naturally good writer of prose, a man who knows the value of using the right word instead of the almost-right paragraph. He might not be a masterful plotter, and his characterization is no more than the minimum needed to get through the plot, but he's nonetheless an enjoyable read. 

Cabal's the kind of character who makes great company on the page and would be terrible company in the real world; perhaps recognizing this, Howard's carefully put him in a world which isn't quite real, so as to put a bit of distance between his atrocious behavior and the happy reader chuckling at it.

Of the three books, Johannes Cabal the Detective is probably the best, combining a nice straightforward plot, a good assortment of characters for Cabal to be annoyed with, and a lot more detail about Howard's engagingly bonkers Edwardian era than we see in the other two books. The Necromancer, the first book, is a bit of a mess plot wise, a jumble of incidents which don't quite cohere into a single satisfying narrative. The Fear Institute, the third book, suffers from some of the same problems, but sorts them out better. Oddly enough, both of them end with quite affecting codas which put Cabal's singleminded pursuit of necromancy into a much more human context. 

A lot of our protagonists these days are supposed to be anti-heroes, scoundrels who we root for all the same. Cabal is not your workaday anti-hero. Although Howard softens him somewhat with his backstory, through most of the narrative Cabal maintains a steely resolve to look after number one no matter who gets hurt in the process. Mind you, in a world where reading books is increasingly a minority sport of the mildly intellectual, he's almost tailored as a character that people who read can root for; Cabal is the kind of person who would shoot someone because he doesn't agree with their grammar. This shouldn't be as funny as it actually is. 

The third book ends on an almost TV series finale level of cliff hangishness, with Cabal saved from almost certain death by a mysterious figure who he had thought long dead. The book ends without telling us who this might be. Howard should have more confidence in his own skills; anyone who's stuck with Cabal so far will be buying the next book anyhow. And on form to date, Howard is perfectly capable of not bothering to tell us who the mystery figure was; he's the only other writer I've come across who equals that wonderful insouciance in Patrick Rothfuss'sThe Wise Man's Fear. Rothfuss left out a whole chunk of the narrative and made a joke out of it; Howard's got that same glint in his eye.

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