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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Blackdog - K.V. Johansen

My wife and daughter were out of town this past week so I took the opportunity to really plow through some of my to read pile backlog.  K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog coming out this September is hard to justify as "backlog", but it's a title that’s called to me from the first time I laid eyes on it.  The cover is another one from Raymond Swanland who has done such good work for James Barclay, Glen Cook, and others. His covers always contain such tangible motion and barely contained violence, which appropriately describes K.V. Johansen's novel.

Long ago, in the days of the first kings in the north, there were seven devils.  These devils, who deceived and possessed seven of the greatest wizards, were defeated and bound with the help of the Old Great Gods.  Now, some of them are free in the world, and some of are working to free themselves still.

In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from river, lake, and spring, the caravan-guard Holla-Sayan stops to help an abandoned child and a dying dog.  Driven from their home by the wizard Tamghat, the girl is the avatar of the goddess Attalissa and the dog is her guardian spirit in need of a host.  Possessed by the Blackdog, Holla-Sayan leaves the desert road with the child in tow fleeing Tamghat and his thirst for Attalissa's power.

Moth was once Ulfhild, wizard and warrior of the north.  And she was once Vartu  Kingsbane, one of the seven devils of legend.  She cares little for the fate of a minor goddess like Attalissa, but she is compelled to hunt down her former comrades.  With her lover, the bear-demon Mikki, she is hunting and woe to anyone who gets in her way.

At first glance Blackdog is a traditional epic fantasy.  It has scope, powerful magic, gods, and demons.  There is a central villain and an obvious and vulnerable yet strong willed heroine surrounded by her stalwart cadre of allies.  Soon though, as the pages go by, things become more robust.  Johansen's world expands and what appears to be another hero's journey is instead a journey to humanity, an evaluation of the bonds of family, and an examination of divinity.

Blackdog's world is lush, in a cognitive sense, barren and arid in truth.  Shown only a fraction of the larger spectrum, the novel focuses on a caravan route through the desert to the mountain steppes.  Each city, or culture, is founded around a god of the earth who appears in both human and incorporeal forms.  Similar to novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin) or Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson), gods are very much active in the world, interacting with their followers and enemies alike.

Where Erikson is overly esoteric at times, Johansen has a knack for not getting off kilter.  Opportunities arise to wax on a philosophical leaning or delve unnecessarily into a facet of her world not relevant to her story and each time she resists the urge to be diverted.  In doing she captures some of the scope and majesty that Erikson so often does, but manages to avoid the trap of self indulgence.  While Blackdog lacks the genre commentary and philosophical meandering that Malazan excels at, I can't help be feel some kinship between the two works.

My only real complaint stems from complex naming conventions that often led to a sensation of reading one of the Russian greats.  Everyone has at least two names, and the devil/wizards have a minimum of three.  Cities tend to be 10-12 letters or more, and many of them have similar sounds.  Main characters even have names that run together with each other at times.  Given Johansen's education background (MA in Medieval Studies), I'm confident that phonetically and historically speaking all the naming conventions make sense.  For example, a woman raised in Attalissa's lands is likely to have a similar sounding name to honor her goddess.  However, for readability, I found it all a bit distracting; often pulling me out of the story to reevaluate who the hell she was talking about.

I read fast. Really fast.
If I was pulled out of things occasionally by confusing names, I was more often sucked in completely (I finished the novel at 2 AM). Blackdog possesses a dreamlike quality that lends itself to distorting time. Divination and soothsaying, inherently intangible pursuits, are prevalent themes in the novel. Magic in general is abstract with little no explanation as to why or how it works (Malazan again, anyone?) relying on deep concentration and meticulous preparation. Combined with the notion of body sharing demons, this all leads to long periods of time where Johansen finds herself describing non-visual events like meditation and internal battling. This would normally lead to periods of boredom, but instead she rescues the slower pace with often lyrical prose that shows and directs, but never tells.

Early on I felt myself digesting Blackdog in small chunks. A chapter here, a chapter there, I wrapped my mind around Johansen's complex world building. Like a runner in a 5K, I found my pace, easing into a rhythm before unleashing my Usain Bolt like speed in the stretch run. By the novels end I was breathless, winding down from a tremendous dénouement, and a heartfelt ending.

It's unclear whether or not Johansen has a sequel in store, if so, there's no indication on the copy I received to review.  The final pages complete the story, but leave enough hanging to warrant future installments.  The world building alone surely invites future exploration.  In either case, I should think lovers of epic fantasy, particularly Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, will devour Blackdog with vigor.  I definitely did.

Click here to read an excerpt.  Blackdog is due out in stores this September, but apparently Amazon already has it in stock.

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At August 25, 2011 at 10:54 AM , Blogger Neth said...

the truth is that I rarely read reviews of books that I haven't already read - for a book I'm curious about I'll typically read the concluding paragraph and that's it. But this time I was sucked into reading the whole review, which has managed to convince me to put this one near the top of the Stack.

Typically, I'm not a real fan of comparing books to other books and authors - mostly because it's too often done wrong or thougtlessly, you avoided that with this review and it's the (largely favorable) comparison to Malazan that has me eager to read this one.

At August 25, 2011 at 10:56 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Yes, I was very nervous about doing it because frankly, nothing REALLY compares to Malazan, it's so unique (and great.)

But the gods/magic/world all sort of gave me a Malazan flavor. I hope people don't think I'm saying it's as good as Erikson, it's not, at all (although more readable I think). But I think fans of one will like the other.

We'll see what other's think.


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