Saturday 30 January 2010

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer - Jonathan L Howard

Johannes Cabal, a brilliant scientist and notorious snob, is obsessed with raising the dead. Tormented by a dark and harrowing secret, he travels to the fiery pits of hell to retrieve his soul, long ago sold to the Devil. Satan, incredibly bored and hungry for a challenge, proposes a little wager: Johannes has one year to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will lose his forever. To keep things interesting, Satan generously throws in a traveling carnival to help Johannes collect on the bargain. With little time to lose, Johannes raises a crew from the dead and enlists his brother, Horst, a charismatic vampire, to be his right-hand man. Once on the road, Johannes and his troupe of reprobates cause mayhem at every stop. But are his tricks enough to beat the Devil at his own game?

From the blurb above, so far this book sounds like Tom Holt, or Terry Pratchett, or any other comedic fantasy author, right? No, definitely not! Jonathan L. Howard infuses Johannes Cabal the Necromancer with flavours from other authors and from films, but the book as a whole is unique and very, very funny. It has the same gruesome humor as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, but remains distinctive through the use of snappy one-liners and characters you’ll love to hate.

The pacing is perfect. We start with an entertaining visit to Hell (a bureaucratic nightmare, with a pen-pushing clerk as a doorman). Then, the plot kicks into a higher gear and sweeps through a year of thrilling adventures as Johannes Cabal attempts to win his wager with Satan by running a twisted carnival. Howard gives us a sample of Cabal’s attempts to collect souls, but doesn’t overdo this aspect of the novel. He still spends time on character development and on other escapades, so that the reader never becomes bored.

Though Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is pitched mainly as comedic fantasy, it contains some extremely spine-tingling and creepy moments, especially the whole scene in the Druin crypt. Howard also takes us to some darker places. We watch with horror as a young lad is enticed to sign his soul away, and as a young mother is encouraged to commit infanticide.

Over the course of the novel we learn that Johannes Cabal is a Very Bad Man, yet he remains endearing to the reader. From his inept social skills to his way with sarcasm, Cabal shines from every page. In particular, his exchanges with his brother Horst virtually crackle with snark:

“Given my profession, being careful is what separates the successes from the failures.”
“Ha! What makes you think you’re such a success, Johannes?”
“Because I’m not tied to a post, up to my knees in bonfire.”

The other characters are just as memorable, from the dozy zombie pair Dennis and Denzil who drive the train, to Bobbins, one of Cabal’s nefarious creations (“...the result of some of Cabal’s tinkering with the basic ‘a rag, a bone, a hank of hair’ formula; in this case by the addition of a tin of Brasso metal polish. As a result everything that Bobbins did, he did brightly”).

The only disappointment is that the world building is almost non-existent. We never learn whether this is a bizarre alternate version of our world, or if it’s another world entirely. Howard focuses so tightly on his fabulous mix of characters, and on building the carnival into an entity that lives and breathes, that we do not see anything beyond this. I would love to see more of the world that Howard has created.

Luckily, it appears that a second novel in this series is on the way, which I now look forward to with great excitement. This is the sort of book that, having finished it — even in the wee small hours of the morning — you want to wake up all your friends and insist they begin it immediately. In fact, I insist you all go and grab a copy — now!

Friday 29 January 2010

Another Just for Fun

Well, I am partway through a book, so no handy reviews to post. Instead, I thought I'd pop this online. It made me giggle a lot, although, on reflection, it might be a little inane. Only problem is, I don't know who to credit it to! If you've seen it before and know who produced it, let me know so I can link them up! I don't want to be a big old content stealer.

Enjoy your Friday - the weekend is in sight!

Click the image to get it a little bigger *blush*

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Lex Trent versus the Gods - Alex Bell

Lex Trent versus the Gods, Alex Bell’s first YA novel, introduces us to Lex Trent, a thief, swindler, and all-round rogue. He has taken one chance too many and finds himself caught up in the Games, playing as a representative of Lady Luck. We follow his various trials and tribulations over the course of the Game.

Lex Trent versus the Gods takes a little while to really get started — setting the scene and allowing us to get to know Lex — but by the time you reach page 64, you simply cannot put the book down and find yourself gripped by all of Lex’s adventures. Even though Lex is insufferably smug and selfish beyond belief, you just can’t help rooting for him. The book is chockfull of other memorable characters, too. One of my favourites is the representation of Lady Luck as a rather ditzy blonde!

By far the best part of Lex Trent versus the Gods is the sheer imagination on display. Bell takes fairy tales, myths and exotic concepts, and weaves them into the story so that you are not surprised by wicked witches and fairy godmothers sharing the same woodland, or by griffins guarding the ladders that link Lands Above and Lands Beneath. I enjoyed the way that Bell gave us this nice mix of typical fantasy tropes, but combined them with rather more mundane settings. Even if the plot hadn’t been particularly good, Lex Trent versus the Gods would still be worth reading for this aspect alone.

Luckily, though, the plot is good. It races past breathlessly (once it has been set alight by the introduction of the Games) — maybe a little too quickly at times. It doesn’t feel as though we have much downtime before the next exhilarating event or daring swindle is taking place. I was a little disappointed with the way Lex’s story is resolved, but that might be to personal taste.

Alex Bell writes with a fluid style that invites the reader to turn the pages quickly. There are plenty of humorous quirks that had me smiling, and a couple of times I found it laugh-out-loud funny (the whole chapter “Muggets and Whiskerfish” was a particular highlight).

My one real complaint is this: I can see why Bell has hung the first part of the story around a legal firm (she was a law student — write about what you know and all that); in fact, Lex Trent’s boredom with the legal profession lends it a ring of authenticity — but when set in a world so magical and unusual, the legal profession sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m sure this was the point (purposely ridiculous), but I found it distracting. Every time I had to move from enchanters and gods to a legal firm, I had a real jarring moment.

But this is a very minor issue when balanced against the fun to be had reading Lex Trent versus the Gods. I would recommend it for fans of Garth Nix and Terry Pratchett's YA Discworld books.

This review has also been published on - click to read reviews of hundreds of fantasy books!

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Galaxy in Flames - Ben Counter

This is the final book in the opening trilogy of the Horus Heresy, following Horus Rising by Dan Abnett and False Gods by Graham McNeill. Galaxy in Flames picks up a year on from the events of False Gods. The Heresy moves on apace, as Horus plots to destroy all those who oppose his plans to usurp the Emperor. The rebel planet of Isstvan III will provide the arena as brother fights brother, and the full horror of Horus' intentions is realised.

I gave the previous two books very favourable reviews, and I wanted to like this one - I really did! At some points - where the events took on a momentum that managed to disguise the poor writing - it actually became readable, but I would say a good two-thirds of this book were fairly dull. This is disappointing when considering the wonderful job done by Dan Abnett in opening the series and then Graham McNeill in sowing the seeds of the betrayal.

I think part of the problem might have been because Counter was constrained by prior books. He had a start point (where McNeill left off) and a definite end point - and little choice in how he represented the events in between. This must be hard for an author, so I do sympathise; and yet McNeill managed with aplomb - taking Abnett's original template and adding in enough of his own voice to create a decent work of his own.

I found Counter's writing very pedestrian - a little too much of a 'this happened then this happened' approach.

I was also disappointed with the manner in which Counter treated the characters that have become beloved over two books. Loken was built up by Abnett and then McNeill to be a conflicted soul - tortured at the idea that his brothers are being taken over by the power of the warp; starting to hear 'the music of the spheres'; but here his character development was limited. A couple of the Primarchs suffered from bit parts - especially Angron. He is supposed to be an unbelievable killing machine, a juggernaut of devastation, and yet some of the Luna Wolves manage to drive him off - I would have liked to read about the way they achieved this against the most warlike of the Primarchs.

Conversely, some of the characters shone in this who had been overlooked in previous books. The Half-Heard steps up to the plate, and I look forward to reading more about him in future books, and Tarvitz ended up being my favourite and most memorable, because of his honour and ability to stand up to those who seek to betray him.

There are a few glaring inconsistencies that might have been picked up by editing, such as when the remaining citizens of Isstvan III were destroyed by the fire storm - despite the fact that virus bombs were supposed to completely decimate the planet.

I think the biggest issue with Counter's writing is also, bizarrely, one of his strengths - this is the fact that he flits from POV to POV without remaining more than a few pages with one character. It means that it is a struggle to immerse yourself with each of the characters, but that pages just flit past without you realising. I was over a hundred pages through before I knew it. It also makes it damnably hard to put the book down.

Despite all the issues with the writing and characterisation, the last third of the book really picks up its pace and the end of it - even though it is signposted - still comes as a shock. I was left feeling extremely sad, and I want to hurry on to the next book. I'm aware that the next books in the Horus Heresy series will now pick on small events and highlight specific Legions rather than covering the overall arc as these first three have done. I'm looking forward to being able to dwell with a limited cast list, rather than hurtling across planets and Legions in a breathless fashion!

My overall summary of this book is therefore: pedestrian writing explodes into life for the last third and leaves me still wanting to read the Horus Heresy. I wouldn't recommend for those who hadn't already read the first two; it's definitely not standalone.

Monday 25 January 2010

Quiz! UK vs US books covers - just for fun!

American and English books have different covers to appeal to the tastes of the two different nations. Question is, which do you favour?

Here are ten books, click the dot underneath the cover which appeals to you the most, and find out where your tastes lie.

(Pressing the reset button at the bottom will clear your answers.)

1. Acacia by David Anthony Durham

2. Scar Night by Alan Campbell

3. Kraken by China Mieville

4. Storm Front by Jim Butcher

5. Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

6. Temeraire by Naomi Novik

7. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

8. The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas

9. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

10. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Thanks for taking part. Hope you found the results illuminating. Why not post your results in the comments box? I preferred six English but four American covers, which surprises me as I always thought the American ones were hideous.

(This quiz does not entitle you to any prizes, except maybe a sense of national pride.)