For fans of fantasy fiction, the Harry Potter/Twilight phenomenon has been a poisoned chalice. It's great that fantasy writing is now gaining the attention of mainstream publishers and that inventive new fantasy books are now coming out all the time. On the other hand, I feel like some books are now being "fantasied" up - given a quirky veneer, a bit of magical polish to sell, rather than containing and introducing the reader to an other world that feels and reads as if real.
The Cabal books are a case in point. The novels revolve around the figure of Johannes Cabal, a necromancer creation whom his author is deeply in love with. Cabal, the narrator repeatedly informs us, is a brittle, unlikeable fellow with an absence of ethics whose main characteristic is sarcasm. The narrator has to frequently remind us of these things, because the novel is so poorly put together that it's impossible to gather them from Cabal's actions or dialogue. (Also, is Jonathon L Howard a moody pubescent, that sarcasm is such a beguiling characteristic in a protagonist? Dry Sherlockian humour, perhaps, but sarcasm, really?)
Whilst the first novel focused on a diabolical circus and a play on Faust, this second novel hardly features any actual fantasy. Here Cabal is placed at the centre of an utterly improbable locked-door political murder mystery, a situation so contrived that you can positively hear the plot cracking under its strain. Only three examples of anything remotely necromantic or fantastic takes place in the novel - and one of those is in the clumsily dashed off addendum. Were it not for being frequently informed of Cabal's profession and the horror! horror! of it, and the fact that the countries at the heart of the political saga are Made Up Places with Weird Names, this would just be a tedious addition to the crime genre. It's so overwritten I could barely breathe while reading, as if the author believed layering adjectives and clauses would maximise the humour. The Agatha Christie-parodying gets old very, very quickly. In a series ostensibly of the fantasy genre, there's simply no magic. In terms of charm, flair, or even subject matter.
At this point, let me address the matter of Cabal's necromancy. I've read my Garth Nix, whose Abhorsen trilogy really renders necromancy as a terrifying and evil thing. But here, although we're frequently told that Cabal's occupation is evil, that he could be punished in horrible, horrible ways for what he does, that his experiments are beyond ghoulish, this horror is not embodied in what actually happens in the novels. The things Cabal does do not inspire horror in the other characters, or us. They're run-of-the-mill actions of a run-of-the-mill anti-hero in a mediocre book.
Which makes me think the pitch for this series went a bit like this:
Jonathon L Howard: I've got this great idea for a character.
Editor: Oh really?
JLH: Yeah. He's a misanthrope. And sarcastic.
E: Sarcasm, you say? Well, sarcasm's cool! Really cool. But... Jonno - I can call you Jonno, right? - we need MORE.
Jonno: More? Isn't that enough for a novel series? Ok... How about - that he's... amoral.
E: Amoral, misanthropic, sarcastic. Yup, readers will lap that up. But why not Twilight it up a bit? A sorcerer or something? That shizzle sells.
Jonno: Um, a sorcerer?
E: Yeah - maybe someone who brings back the dead or something?
Jonno: Er, ok? But he brings them back misanthropically and sarcastically, right? I really care that he's misanthropic and sarcastic.
E: Absolutely. He doesn't even have to, you know, bring them back. That's just gross. We'll just say that's what he does. They'll lap it up. Awesome. So here's your 5-book contract and massive advance.
Jonno: Er, ok... Great!
What's peculiar to me are the masses of highly positive reviews on Goodreads, Amazon and elsewhere. Am I missing something, it makes me wonder? Do long tedious descriptions of slapstick situations really "witty" make nowadays? It's a hard, hard thing to write funny. But it is possible, and because I know it's possible, I know this isn't it. Mr Jonathon L Howard, may I point you to another Jonathon, Mr Stroud, and suggest you try to learn something from the master of truly comic and truly fantastic comic fantasy.
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