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by Jonathan L Howard

4*

Part magic-fantasy, part steam-punk, part surrealist comedy, Johannes Cabal is a fascinating protagonist, a most unusual hero, not in the least bit (or, in fact, in any way) admirable or worthy, lacking almost all redeeming human qualities bar a fast intelligence and a fine, biting, bitchy sarcastic wit, he is a man with ‘several faults, several of which were also capital crimes’.

In many ways, it’s a very visual novel; Jonathan L Howard’s day job as a game-designer is very much to the fore. At times, The Fear Institute reads like the script for a super-elaborate, fantastically detailed, heavily back-story’d game. I’m not much of a gamer myself and this was, for me, the least successful aspect of this novel, mainly serving to over-complicate an already pretty complex storyline. I found my mind wandering a little during these bits – then having to go back and re-read what I’d missed because the intricately-stitched plot requires that you Stay Awake! at all times.

The plot is the least of it, however; it’s the language, the humour, that raises this novel above the norm. For example:

‘We has deck quoits,’ said the second merchant gleefully, the only phrase in human speech it knew.
‘Done then!’ roared the first adventurer, confident that good voice projection and a waxed chest would see him through every predicament…

‘Presumably waste is thereby conducted to some distant place where raining excrement is not regarded as unusual. Like Tartarus,’ he guessed. ‘Or Ipswich.’

This is the third part of a trilogy, but it doesn’t seem to matter much if you haven’t read the previous novels. There were only a few occasions when I realised something was being alluded to from previous books, but The Fear Institute can easily be read as a stand-alone; it did make me want to read parts 1 and 2.

In short, it’s a fast-moving, twisty-turny, timey-wimey, complicated, terribly (literally!) entertaining read, surreal and dark and – best of all – unremittingly and brilliantly funny. From the foreword (forget the warning. Read the book. Go insane. See if I care) to the cliff-hanger end – which isn’t really an end, but the beginning of another novel – I was gripped and thrilled and laughing out loud.

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