The Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard
|Book Name:||The Fear Institute|
|Author:||Jonathan L. Howard|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Horror / Steampunk|
|Release Date:||June 1, 2011 (US) September 1, 2011 (UK)|
“Why on Earth did you steal three dead popes?” asked Cabal.
“First, to make the Vatican very cross. That was funny. Second reason, delicious.”
It’s rare for Johannes Cabal to have visitors that aren’t of the torch-bearing mob variety, so when three strangers show up at his front door asking for his help, he greets them with his Webley .577 Boxer in hand. Turns out these men are from the Fear Institute, and they want to hire Cabal as their guide through the Dreamlands, a world built by mystics and poets (neither of which are the sort of people Cabal is particularly fond of). The catch? He has to help them find the Phobic Animus, the source of all fears, so they can destroy it. While he couldn’t care less for the Institute’s goal of freeing humanity from irrational terror, an all-expenses paid trip to the Dreamlands is too good to pass up.
This novel is similar to the first one in tone and style, with more fantasy and less steampunk. The setting plays a huge part, so let’s talk about that first. The Dreamlands are built from imagination, where the rules are a little more Byronic than in the real world. Here there are talking skulls, ship-eating monsters traverse the sea, wizards live in secluded towers on islands that can’t be found, and the Great Old Ones hear your prayers (whether you want them to or not). It’s the sort of place that nurtures insanity. Jonathan L. Howard certainly brings the setting to life, showing it as being both marvelous and terrifying, sometimes all at once. And it’s also the sort of place that clashes with Cabal’s rational, serious demeanor. The Dreamlands fight Cabal for his sanity, creating one of the main struggles in the book for the protagonist.
The majority of the novel follows Cabal and the members of the Institute as they traverse the Dreamlands, searching for the location of the Phobic Animus. This involves normal fantasy quest stuff, like talking to prophetic witches and traveling across oceans to find wise hermits, but it’s layered with the dark comedy that this series is known for. And Johannes Cabal is not the typical fantasy hero, or even anti-hero. While there is some sword-fighting, most of the problems thrown in Cabal’s path are solved with his brain rather than brawn, which is something I liked about this character from the very start.
It’s not obvious from the beginning of the novel how the story will end, and what starts as a fantastical quest turns into a revelation of the series’ main character. This book, more than any other in the series so far, gives us a good look into the mind, heart, and soul of Johannes Cabal. It also shows us just how much punishment he can take, and the dark paths he may still yet go down. Subtle is a word I’ve used before when discussing these books, and it’s something I really appreciate about how Howard writes his characters.
With that being said, the members of the Fear Institute are some of the weakest characters in this novel, though I feel the strength of the other minor characters make up for that. Sometimes it feels like the three Institute members only there because they’re on a quest, so there needs to be four to five men in the group. All but one aren’t really memorable characters, and any plot functions they serve could have been replaced by the more interesting minor characters that Cabal meets in the Dreamlands. It would have been nice if more time could have been devoted to characters like the stand-in for the wise wizard who dispenses advice to our intrepid heroes: the ghoul leader. His conversations with Cabal are lively, funny, and lend an air of mystery to the novel. We’re not sure why he’s helping Cabal, or if he really is helping at all, but each scene with him is great. To be fair, the expendability of the members of the institute is played with in the novel, but I still think they were the weakest part of an otherwise strong story.
Like the first novel, the ending for this one is bittersweet. I think it’s the strongest ending in the series overall, and it left me counting down the days to the release of the fourth novel. Despite knowing that Cabal can be truly evil, you can’t help but feel sympathy for him. The ending draws on the idea that in the Dreamlands, nothing is as it seems. While it does tie up the novel’s loose ends, the novel ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, though thankfully the fourth book is already out as of this review, so there’s no need to wait to see what happens next.