Wow. That’s all I can say. I wouldn’t have believe it twenty, fifty or a hundred pages in, but I am sold and sold again on this book. Wow.
It began silly, darkly and self-consciously whimsical but it didn’t stay that way. Humour (and believe me, there was plenty) gave way to plot and character development and sinister twists and heart-wrenching devotion to the people of the last few hundred pages. I wouldn’t exactly say it started slowly, but it didn’t have the pace of plot that grew out of the later pages. It made up for it by being highly quotable, however, with such gems as “Cabal had a sinking feeling that he might have been abducted by Dadaists.” and “Inexplicably, he also wore a tea cosy on his head into which the symbol of an eye in a pyramid had been stitched.” or “Extra-cosmic entities with names that sound like they were typed up by a drunken Egyptologist”. I shall leave them without context, to keep things spoiler-free.
Early on, you feel nothing really for Johannes Cabal, eponymous “hero”, and early on, none of the backing cast have much going for them. But as the story picks up, Cabal develops depth (oh so slowly, and all the better for that slowness) and a supporting character you come to realise is just the amount of likeable you really need to appreciate the book. I mustn’t spoil, but it’s very hard not to enthuse. The entire book is, to some extent, a delve into the mind of Johannes Cabal; we see a lot of the world as he sees it, and as such, some of the twists are hidden from our detached, third-personness because they are hidden from him. He doesn’t see the world like that, so nor do we. It helps to make a character dear to the reader, despite being, in many respects, fundamentally unlikeable.
Along the way, the author also uses all sorts off odd devices to keep us interested and provide variation from the typical narrative style. Sometimes you don’t really see the point of them until much later, but they all do have a point and they work wonderfully into the fabric of the story; the detachment of third-party sources of information plays well against the way Cabal’s telling of the story comes through to us. Both are cold, mostly dispassionate and rational, but from very different angles.
My major issue with the book isn’t a criticism, but a personal niggle. He leaves a lot of details of the world, the setting and the characters’ background unexplored. And it does work for the plot and the feel of the book. I just am the sort of person who wants appendices. ALL THE APPENDICES. I got to the end and immediately began forming questions. Part of me hopes there is or will be a sequel, so those questions might be answered. But the jaded part, who has read far too many fantasy novels and knows the doom-laden path of sequels and their ilk, knows that this book could not be improved by the addition of a sister. To create more would be to pollute. And it’s rare that my desire to preserve the quality of the story of a book overcomes my desire for more knowledge. I wouldn’t complain if the author published two hundred pages of explanatory notes, but any attempt to create more story, or to resolve some of the outcomes from the point at which we leave them, would spoil the art that is the story as stands.
And it is art. The style the author chooses is apt for the material and unusual enough to be pleasing, without being oblique or obtuse. It’s not new, but it’s not quite the norm either, and it really really works for what he does with it. It has some of the irreverance of Terry Pratchett along with the grit and pulp of a Jim Butcher novel and the pleasant verbal artistry of Hal Duncan, with none of the insanity. It may well exceed Vellum as my second favourite book (NOTHING can oust my favourite, veteran of nearly twenty reads, whose footnotes I no longer need to read because I know what they say, Good Omens, but that’s more to do with my obsessive devotion than a mark of sheer quality); I’m not sure. It certainly bears a second reading to check, though I’m slightly worried that even reading it again will spoil it.
Possibly, I’m a little crazy because it’s 6.39am and I’ve been reading for a good few hours and, well, the moment after you put a new book down is always one of hazy euphoria. Come tomorrow, I may wax less keenly the merits of Jonathan Howard’s work, but I doubt it. It is an unusual thing to come out of a book feeling /this/ pleased, even though not every outcome was good. Much of this is down to the quality of the writing, which is much higher than the usual trash I read (not condemning trash, I love trash, but sometimes good writing is worth it) but it’s not just that. The author has just got almost everything right, and the whole things comes together well. I’m not sure even that the shaky start isn’t deliberate. It lured me into a false sense of security… though possibly had I been in my normal, less than patient, mood, I might not have got further than the silly part out of distraction and disinterest. Boredom clearly focuses the mind.
But I’m glad I did. I honestly love this book, and it is a shame indeed that I’ve never heard of the author before.