Two recurring motifs in fantasy literature, both historical and contemporary, are the conquest of death and the book of secrets. The search for immortality — and its advantages and drawbacks — ranges from a fascination with immortal creatures (vampires, gods, Tolkien’s elves) to The Fountain of Youth and the cure for all bodily ills. The book or scroll or other text takes as many forms, from ancient books of magic, grimoires, H. P. Lovecraft’s Necromonicon, and other sorts of occult texts.
The Apothecary’s Curse by Barbara Bennett (Pyr, October 2016) reads a bit like a Dan Brown thriller. Immortality (or rather, the ability to heal from almost any disease or injury) has been achieved, thanks to an ancient text, a compendium of remedies based on various herbs and chemicals, derived from knowledge millennia before its time and rooted in a Celtic-like myth. The ingredients and procedures must be followed with scientific accuracy, and any deviation is likely to cause disastrous results. In this story, the two viewpoint characters — one a 17th Century apothecary, the other a physician from almost two centuries later — have achieved immortality and found it to be a curse. The book, however, has been lost, along with any hope of restoring them to normal human lives. In every era, they must deal with those who seek this knowledge for their own nefarious purposes.
I loved the premise that an ancient text, written is such a way that only an adept can unravel its secrets, holds a treasure trove of scientific lore equal to what contemporary medicine possesses. The characters appealed to me, especially the apothecary struggling with PTSD after being tortured for decades in a madhouse. The one misstep came near the end with a sudden detour into conventional fantasy and divine intervention that was not only unnecessary but for me detracted from the “ancient science” theme. Still, the book was an enjoyable read, a nice combination of two time-honored themes with a medical thriller twist.
The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard (St. Martin’s Press, Thomas Dunne Books, Sept. 2016) presented a delightful read from the first page, with its quirky humor and even quirkier characters. This is not the first adventure of Johannes Cabal, necromancer and social misfit, and his debonair vampire brother, Horst, but it’s a dandy place to jump in. Johannes and Horst are off on a quest across virtual dimensions, one that involves both immortality that That Special Occult Book. On their way, they're accompanied by assorted comrades — living, dead, and demonic. My favorite was the latter, a gigantic half-woman, half-spider who wears an angora sweater and is as enthusiastic about sex as she is about murder. When introduced to Johannes's (human) woman detective companion, someone he cannot bring himself to admit his feelings for, the first thing our spider-demon asks is, "Is she your lover?" No, he sputters, of course not. "But here is Horst, my brother." "Oh," says the spider. "Is he your lover?"You've got to love a creature who thinks that way.
The story is a witty, endlessly entertaining, fast-moving romp through Hell and London (via a few other places) that left me cheering and wanting more. I have no doubt that the House of Cabal shall rise again!