Fantasy Review: ‘The Fear Institute’ by Jonathan L Howard

The Fear Institute (Johannes Cabal, #3)What a strange series the Johannes Cabal saga has become.  The first book was a Faustian tale with an evil carnival.  It introduced us to the title character, a wholly unlikeable man who in the end outsmarted the Devil himself.  It was full of dry, slightly morbid humor, a fast moving plot, and I enjoyed it very much.  The second book kept the unlikable title character but put him in a steampunk noir adventure, this time acting as a Sherlock in the story.  It was a complete change of pace.

Which brings us to the third book in the series.  The Fear Institute leaves behind the steampunk setting and plants us firmly back on earth, at least at first.  It then becomes a Alice in Wonderland tale.  Except Alice is actually a completely unlikable genius necromancer who goes down the rabbit hole intentionally.  Oh, and Wonderland is actually the very Lovecraftian Dreamlands.

Cabal is contacted by The Fear Institute, which seems to consist of three men with a key to the dreamlands who want to rid the land of irrational fear by finding a mcguffin.  He takes the job, helps them get in and acts as a guide in their adventure.  A heartless, aloof, unlikeable guide.

Really ones’ enjoyment of the series, and thus this book, is going to come down to how much they like Cable as a protagonist.  After all this is a man described as having “many faults, several of which were also capital crimes.”  He takes no joy in killing but does it casually a few times, considers his traveling companions as fodder for whatever may want to eat them (the old hiker with running shoes vs the bear joke came to mind) and is utterly committed to one goal.  He also has sarcasm down to an art, and it is only made better by the author’s narration behind it.  His occasional acts of kindness stand out so much that makes them almost seem sweet, until I remembered all the other things he has done.

Despite its grim nature and decently high death count the book actually feels like a light hearted romp at times.  Obviously the humor helps.  But it also is quick paced, bouncing between a few dream inspired challenges and monsters.  An island battle in which the expected monster has found to be wiped out by something much worse was a delight, especially once the new monster’s story is fully revealed.

Really my only knock on the book is the last ten percent of it or so.  I am actually about to place the book in some illustrious company among works of literature, ‘Return of the King’ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’  Where is this idiot reviewer going with this you ask?  Both are good books (well, great in the case of Twain) that should have ended much sooner than they did.  I didn’t need the Hobbits return to the Shire.  I didn’t need Tom Sawyer to show up at all.  And ‘The Fear Institute’ had a perfect ending to me, the first time.  It was interesting and surprisingly moving.  Then it felt like the author had an alternative ending in mind, couldn’t decide between the two, and jammed them both in.   The actual ending was interesting, but something of a let down after what I felt should have been the real conclusion.

Almost a four star read for me; not quite as good as the first in the series but much better than the second.  Unfortunately that ending had me looking at the kindle status bar a bit too much wondering what was going on.

3 ½ stars

Review Copy received through NetGalley.

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