Blackdog by K.V. Johansen

Pyr, September 2011
Trade Paperback, 547 pages I
SBN: 978-1-61614-521-7



Gods and goddesses live among men women.  Sometimes they even grow up and come of age alongside men and women. At least they do in Blackdog, K.V. Johansen’s first novel for adults which is set in a mythology-rich world.

The novel begins with the raid of village whose goddess, Attalissa, is nearing her last days. Much like the Dalai Lama, Attalissa’s spirit is reborn into a new body when her current body dies and can no longer house the spirit. Fortunately, the spirit of the Blackdog (who also follows a similar body-bouncing lifestyle as Attalissa) is often present to protect the goddess.  When the wizard/warlord Tamghat lays waste to Attalissa’s village, the young goddess is soon on the run with the Blackdog. Unfortunately, the body housing the Blackdog’s spirit is expiring and a new body must be found for Attalissa’s protector spirit if she’s to come into her full power as goddess.  The spirit picks the body of Holla-Sayan, a caravan guard from a neighboring village-nation who is less than willing to house the spirit, not the least of which is because his people don’t necessarily worship Attalissa as their deity. Meanwhile, Tamghat is in search for more power, which he thinks he can gain from Attalissa.

Where to begin?  I suppose the world itself is good enough – Johansen has created a world that resonates with ancient powers and oozes with mythic resonance. I recall one of my college courses – World Mythology – and the text of world myths on the reading list.  Johansen’s novel seems as if it could fit right in with those stories, though thankfully for us as readers she’s fleshed out the bones of the myth, added muscle, organs, and more life to the story to make a compelling novel. It should, then, come as no surprise Johansen’s academic background is Medieval Studies. The knowledge and passion, she has for ancient text comes through very well in the narrative energy of the story and world she created.

The characters come across as believable and genuine. Holla-Sayan, in particular, expresses doubt about himself and why he’s been chosen.  He fits the role of reluctant hero quite well and the internal dialogue he has with the Blackdog spirit serves to further his character’s depth.  In Tamghat, Johansen has created what amounts to a complete monster ( as the antagonist.  Granted, he might be a product of his environment, but that makes him no less despicable or easy to root against nor does it give him an excuse for his behavior. I found myself contrasting his character to Jardir, the villain protagonist from Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man and The Desert Spear, because of their similarly rough backgrounds, but Jardir has a more redemptive streak. Attalissa comes to balance innocence and power as she matures, which also comes through the other characters with whom she interacts. Attalissa also balances human and goddess as she matures, and the difficulty of such a task comes through in a plausible fashion.

Fantasy novels about gods and goddesses among men, though not commonplace in the fantasy genre, are also not out of the ordinary.  One need to look no further than Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time to see heroic avatars representing gods coming to power as an example of a stories in a similar vein. Johansen’s hook of showing a goddess coming into her maturity is slightly different in that her protagonist is not just an avatar, but the Goddess herself. That fascinating conceit and the requisite storytelling, characters and world-building back up that hook very nicely. Am I stating the stories are similar? No, not exactly, but the vein of myth coming to life and immensely powerful beings striding alongside the common man is similar.  Where Johansen’s storytelling, characters and overall ‘feel’ of the novel finds the most similarity, for me, is in Glen Cook’s writing. The raw and almost primitive milieu reminded me a bit of Cook’s Darkwar.

For all the power of myth and pure evocative nature of the novel, I can’t say it is flawless. Particularly after the first section of the book, I found my initial (and what proved to be only real) misgivings. Johansen starts the novel strongly with great narrative energy describing the ravaging of a village.  However, the following section breaks away quite abruptly and the narrative energy takes a while to regain momentum.  It was almost, almost, too jarring of a switch for me to continue, but I’m pleased I did.

In the end, Blackdog, is a rich novel that reminded me of Glen Cook and for a more recent novel/writer, N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  Perhaps the Cook comparison was unavoidable (and maybe intentional, Pyr’s art director/editorial director Lou Anders is after all a pretty bright guy) since the gorgeous and evocative cover art is by Raymond Swanland, whose art has also been adorning many of the recently reissued Glen Cook novels published by Tor and Nightshade Books.

All told, another solid novel from Pyr and one that shows the publisher is moving along a lot of different paths of the fantasy genre.


© 2011 Rob H. Bedford

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