Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: The Fall of the House of Cabal (2016) by Jonathan L. Howard

Let's play sports analogies: In the field of fantasy/horror fiction, Jonathan L. Howard is a decathlete who regularly ends up on the podium. He's a 20-game winning pitcher who can paint the corners with the fastball, freeze batters with his curveball, and make them look foolish with the breaking ball. He's a centre in hockey who plays a 200-foot game and can be counted on for some Gordie Howe hat tricks every season. And now I've run out of sports I know anything about. My point, and I do have one, is that Howard is a writer who, within his particular field, is adept at any literary style you care to think of. Depending on what's called for, or as the mood takes him, he can do comedy (high and low), horror, big action set-pieces, mystery, wit, spookiness, and good old-fashioned ripping yarn adventure. His masterful skill as a literary shape-shifter is always most evident in his Cabal books, of which this is the fifth in the series.

This time out Johannes and his brother Horst are on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth. To get there they require the assistance of three women: a spider demon, a witch, and a detective. The Cabal novels take place in a steampunky Europe that looks and sounds roughly like the 1920s. Cabal & Co. journey to several supernatural realms, fight everything from ghouls to vampiric bankers to Satan himself, and it's all done with style and effervescent inventiveness. That description might make it sound like the author has overegged his pudding (a common fault in the steampunk genre), but Howard is disciplined enough to never introduce a new story element without giving it the proper level of development and creative attention. 

What might be most striking about this latest entry in the Cabal franchise is that it still holds the reader's attention. The woods are full of fantasy writers who crank out trilogies, quartets, and quintets, but it's rare for any of these shelf-fillers to maintain a high standard beyond the first in the series. The Cabal books are consistently excellent. One reason for this is that Howard dabbles in a different type of story with each outing. The series has included a mystery story, a picaresque adventure set in a carnival, a Lovecraftian epic, and a war story of sorts. The other factor that accounts for the longevity of the series is that Howard brought in Horst to be a foil for Johannes. Horst is a vampire with a heart of gold, and his geniality, humour and humanity act to leaven the sardonic misanthropy of Johannes. 

You don't have to be a fantasy/horror fan to enjoy this series. Howard's main aim is to amuse, and what stands out most strongly about the Cabal books is their wit. There are lots of things that go bump, slither, and bite in the night, but the overall tone is comic with a generous side order of rip-roaring adventure. The humour is often acidic, the writing sometimes donnish and orotund (I sense the ghost of mystery writer Michael Innes is present here), and there is absolutely never a dull moment. And here's hoping Horst Cabal gets a standalone novel in the Cabal universe. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Book Review: The Neapolitan Novels (2011-14) by Elena Ferrante

It's hard to know where to begin in describing or evaluating the four novels that comprise Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, so I'll start by declaring that the foursome are among the best works of fiction I've ever read. And here goes my plot synopsis: the story follows two women, Elena and Lila, from childhood to late middle-age, charting their intense, sometimes antagonistic, friendship, and their life in one of Naples rougher areas. Both women, to differing degrees, rise above their surroundings and backgrounds, but the struggle to do so is daunting and costly, So that describes about 9% of the novels.

The single feature that to my mind sets Ferrante above so many other writers is her single-minded devotion to subverting almost every expectation we have about how a fictional narrative is supposed to unfold. Very near the end of the fourth novel, The Story of the Lost Child, one of the two main characters says this:

Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.

The above quote succinctly describes the antithesis of the Neapolitan novels. Many novels and novelists are promoted as realistic or truthful or uncompromising, but within that realism, more often than not, there's a solid structure of cause and effect, and most problems or conflicts find a resolution. It's probably the most difficult thing for a novelist to do: put aside their omniscience and let characters and events sprawl out in all kinds of messy directions without providing any pat rationales or conclusions. Stories are really about endings, or at the very least summations, and to avoid this almost seems like a violation of the storyteller's craft.

Graham Greene once said that "a writer must have a sliver of ice in their heart," and by that standard Ferrante has an iceberg in hers, as she's absolutely merciless in showing the faults and frailties of Lila and Elena. The two of them make good, bad and foolish decisions, are brave, stupid, reckless, loving, careless, spiteful, generous, kind, and bitter, and Ferrante dissects, with forensic detail, every aspect of their thinking and emotions. The psychological depth she gives her characters is virtually unsurpassed.

Ferrante also weaves an metafiction element through her novels. Elena is the narrator, and a novelist, and there is much discussion of how personal narratives are unreliable or can even be shared by different people. By the end of the quartet it's even possible to question whether Elena or Lila has been the narrator.

The only bumpy part of the series comes at the end, when Elena moves back to Naples after years away. It's a questionable decision on her part, but why she doesn't leave again, given how rocky her life in Naples gets, seems odd. Also, her problems with her teenage daughters aren't fleshed out and feel gratuitously dramatic. Beyond that, the novels are astonishingly perfect, although their emotional intensity often becomes hard to bear. So take my advice and detox between each novel with some light reading--Dostoevsky, perhaps.