Friday, October 14, 2011

Blackdog - K.V. Johansen

About the book:

Long ago, in the days of the first kings in the north, there were seven devils. 

In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from river, lake, and spring, the caravan-guard Holla-Sayan, escaping a bloodily-conquered 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 driven mad by the Blackdog, he flees to the desert road, taking the powerless avatar with him. 

And long ago, in the days of the first kings in the north, the seven devils, who had deceived and possessed seven of the greatest wizards of the world, were defeated and bound with the help of the Old Great Gods... 

Necromancy, treachery, massacres and rebellions, gods dead or lost or mad, follow hard on the devils' heels. But it is Attalissa herself who may be the Blackdog's—and Holla-Sayan's—doom. 

And perhaps some of the devils are free in the world, and perhaps some are working to free themselves still.

525 pages (paperback)
Published on: September 20, 2011
Published by: Pyr
Author’s webpage

Thanks to Pyr for sending me a copy of this book to review.


While religion is often found in epic fantasy, rarely is it the main focus of a novel, as it is in Blackdog. Furthermore, it’s even more rare to find an epic fantasy book that is a stand-alone rather than part of a long series or trilogy. While the fact that Blackdog is a stand-alone might turn some epic fantasy fans off, it is rather refreshing to read a fantasy on an epic scale that is contained within one book and has a definite beginning, middle and ending.

Johansen’s world building reminds me a bit of Erikson’s in his Malazan series. The world is large, intricate and sprawls into lands that are just hinted at. It has a rich history which will keep the reader interested and yearning to learn more. Furthermore, the gods are steeped in that rich history and add an interesting dimension to both time and place as well as some interesting complexity and cultural nuances.

The gods in Blackdog are also somewhat reminiscent of Erikson’s Malazan series in the fact that they are actual beings that can be interacted and spoken with rather than being some vague idea that cultural nuances are based on. In fact, many of the cities and towns seem to thrive based on the health and power of their local god. For example, a few of the gods readers will meet in Blackdog are old and almost decrepit due to the fact that they had been long forgotten, or only worshipped by a select few. As Tamghat, the warlord antagonist, expands his power, the gods begin to look incredibly human. They fear and anticipate just like humans would and their reaction to events directly and profoundly affects the communities they are anchored to.

Attalissa is an interesting character to follow, as she is the lake god who is forced to flee as a young girl and grows up as a human child in a caravan traveling something similar to our Silk Road. Due to this shockingly human upbringing far away from her base of power, her coming of age tale is far different than you’d expect from a goddess. The same can also be said of Holla-Sayan, who spends much of the book locked in an inner struggle with the Blackdog.

While Blackdog is primarily the tale of Attalissa and Holla-Sayan, it doesn’t focus solely on them. There are plenty of well-developed secondary characters to keep anyone entertained. The only problem with this is that due to the span of years covered and the epic sized plot and world, some incredibly interesting characters with stories that could easily be expanded on seemed to fade into oblivion quickly and unfortunately.

Blackdog is interesting in the fact that Johansen uses a lot of interesting internal dialogue throughout the book as many of the characters are either wrestling with insanity or are possessed. Despite these struggles and possessions, the characters all retain their unique voices and individuality throughout without allowing the reader to ever get confused with who is who, which is no small feat.

Naming conventions in Blackdog might confuse readers a first, but they are well thought out and give the reader an important sense of the world’s culture, as most characters seem to take on the name of their local gods somehow. For example, a priestess of Attalissa is named Attavaia and Holla-Sayan carries his local god Sayan’s name. Even places follow this pattern. Attalissa’s lake is named Lissavakail and the goddess Sera presides over the city named Serakallah. This, as other reviewers have noted, shows off Johansen’s master’s degree in Medieval Studies. These subtle details peppered throughout the book really help the believability of this multifaceted Asianesque world.

While I rarely mention cover art in a review, I feel like the cover art of Blackdog particularly supports the book. It’s artistic, ethereal and mysterious without being over-the-top. It causes potential readers to wonder what it’s all about, setting the perfect tone and attitude before the reader even cracks the spine and Johansen carries that through to the last page. Everything about Blackdog is measured, deep, planned and thought out. An incredible world and wonderful characters are created in this tome, which I woud love the author to expand on in the future. Despite some abrupt character entries and exits and some confusing names, Blackdog is a real gem fans of epic fantasy should check out.

4/5 stars

** Note: this review was typed one handed while holding a sleeping two-month-old. I apologize for any glaring errors I missed. **

1 comment:

  1. I just got this one in the mail and asked for it based on LEC's review. Now I'm even more excited to dive in....just 390 pages to go in Dust of Dreams. :)