Having previously dealt mostly in children and teenage fantasy fiction, Canadian writer K.V. Johansen makes her entrance on the adult epic fantasy scene with Blackdog, an ambitious standalone novel filled with gods, goddesses, entrancing magics and touching characters. Boasting a scope and depth easily the equal of any ten-volume epic, Blackdog mixes the scale and feel of the greatest fantasy sagas with a succinct, character-driven storytelling, blending the two into a (relatively) meager, highly enjoyable five hundred fifty pages.
In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from river, lake, and spring, the caravan-guard Holla-Sayan, escaping the bloody conquest of a lakeside town, stops to help an abandoned child and a dying dog. The girl, though, is the incarnation of Attalissa, goddess of Lissavakail, and the dog a shape-changing guardian spirit whose origins have been forgotten. Possessed and nearly drive mad by the Blackdog, Holla-Sayan flees to the desert road, taking the powerless avatar with him. Necromancy, treachery, massacres, rebellions, and gods dead or lost or mad, follow hard on their heels. But it is Attalissa herself who may be the Blackdog’s - and Holla-Sayan’s - doom.
Beyond the obviously gorgeous and suitably epic artwork from Raymond Swanland, what drew me to Blackdog was the book’s blurb which suggested an earnest desire to tell an epic, slightly old-school story on Johansen’s part, all in one neat volume. From the way this tale began, with a relatively narrow focus, it wasn’t immediately obvious that we were dealing with a story and a setting that presented an amount of worldbuilding and scope worthy of the likes of Sanderson, Martin or Jordan. Unlike these writers, however, Johansen - even once we’ve followed the characters out into the world - never reveals too much about the world she’s built other than what is currently relevant.
Through the characters’ journey out of the mountains, into the desert and across hills, rivers and steppes, we catch a glimpse of the wider world this story subsists in. In the small part of this land we get the chance to explore we already encounter a diverse range of people and cultures. This is a world in touch with their spirituality, due to the accentuated presence of their deities, the gods and goddesses being of a very earthly nature and known to get involved and appear to their followers.
Into this vivid setting, Johansen, inserts a few key characters around which Blackdog’s story revolves. Holla-Sayan, the Blackdog, and Attalissa are, obviously, the chief protagonists and are fair ones at that. Johansen’s characterization is one of the notable aspects or her books to which she adds a touch of modernity in contrast to an otherwise fairly typical fantasy tale, building great depth into characters’ personalities and approaching the storytelling from a very intimate angle.
Attalissa exemplifies the complexity of character Johansen has built into her creations, as a goddess made flesh fighting internal battles with the all-too familiar strifes of adolescences and the difficulty and weight that anchor a deity to her people. This unique position is portrayed by Johansen in a deeply humane and appropriately inspiring way. Somehow, Johansen has managed to create a new type of epic fantasy hero, one that is both mortal and immortal, infinitely powerful yet limited by her perspective and troubles, and one which very few will have difficulty caring for.
The successful characterization applies also to Holla-Sayan, if to a lesser degree, as he is a character that more easily fits genre arch-types. His own internal struggle and emotional journey, like that of Attalissa, is well developed and serves as a solid secondary arc for the novel. Surrounding these two main characters are an equally entertaining and well-characterized bunch of people, from warrior-priestesses, to caravan-leaders, freedom-fighters and age-old entities, each adding his or her own flavor to the story.
Themes of mysticism abound in Blackdog, and as Johansen opts to leave her magic as undefined as possible, there is a strong aura of mystery and wonder to the story. And yet, the way in which the characters interact with magic and their acceptance of it a common occurrence adds to the worldbuilding’s credibility form a story telling point of view. Along with its thrilling skirmishes, rebellions and duels, this wispy embrace of the fantastic makes Blackdog a distinguished reading experience, setting itself apart from other novels yet suggesting familiarity all the while.
With little to nothing to hold to complain against it, Blackdog is an elaborate piece of fantasy storytelling that heralds the coming of a new talent in epic fantasy, should K.V. Johansen choose to return the adult fiction a second time. A mystifying, genuinely absorbing take on traditional high fantasy trappings with a keen eye to characters and their emotions, Blackdog deserves you give it a try. Highly recommended. Blackdog was published by Pyr in September in the US, and is available by import in the UK.
My Rating: 5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
K.V. Johansen's Website: http://www.kvj.ca