BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a world where deities walk the earth, a young avatar of a mountain lake Goddess (with a mysterious, ancient, man-possessing spirit bound to her service as her ally) is on the run from an avaricious wizard who is more than he appears.
PROS: Vivid worldbuilding; the cultures and societies feel fresh; an interesting and complex set of protagonists and antagonists.
CONS: The temporally episodic nature of the narrative leads to some characters frustratingly being abruptly dropped and only later being picked up again; some of these plotlines seem sadly undernourished.
VERDICT: A coming of age story about a young goddess in a rich fantasy world.
She was a goddess and it was not her place. The strangeness of understanding, sharing her fear, made him almost angry, bewildered with it. What was worse, Holla felt the place watching him, all the living powers, the little demons and the greater who wandered the desert and the foothills, and the goddess Sera. She was aware ,with something that felt very like anger and fear in equal measure, of Attalissa’s presence. And of his own. It was as though he stood naked, while hostile people stared from somewhere behind his shoulder , never quite showing themselves.
We should speak with the goddess Sera at her spring. We shouldn’t trespass here unannounced.
The Blackdog agreed that Attalissa must approach Sera at once.
Holla-Sayan clenched his teeth. “Sera can wait. First we go tell my friends I’m back. Gaguush will want to know there are raiders in the mountains, and the sept-chiefs will want to know. Remember–” Remember that you are no goddess here. It wouldn’t be usual at all for us to go to the spring., when I’ve only been gone a couple of days. I’ll take you and show you later, tonight or tomorrow. That would be more natural. Remember you’re a child. My child. Call me dog or even Holla out loud and I’ll box your ears.
In the world of Blackdog, deities, demons and other spirits walk the earth and inhabit the landscape in a real and tangible way. Even within that framework, Attalissa, goddess of the lake of Lissavakail, is unusual. Most deities remain insubstantial spirits until they interact with worshippers and supplicants. Attalissa is different. Long ago, she decided to, in the manner of the Lamas of Tibet on Earth, incarnate herself again and again in baby girls, growing to adulthood and old age, and then repeating the cycle upon earthly death. This means that when she is a young girl and not fully in possession of her powers, she is vulnerable to malfeasance.
With a group of warrior women priestesses and a feral spirit bound to her service to protect her, this might not normally be a problem. But when a warlord-wizard comes knocking with an army, trouble brews. Attalissa soon finds herself on the run, her bound spirit takes a new host in the form of a caravan guard, and her life at the lake is exchanged for a life on the road. But the wizard is still searching for his prey, other powers have taken an interest in the wizard’s doings, and others affected by the attack on the lake get along with their own lives and agendas…
Such is the matter of Blackdog, the fantasy debut of K.V. Johansen.
Let’s start with my favorite part of the book, the setting and the worldbuilding. The world of Blackdog has echoes of Central Asian cultures and ideas, ranging from the Lamas of Tibet to the Silk Road. A world laced through with gods and goddesses everywhere is reminiscent to me of Gregory Keyes’ early novels The Waterborn and the Blackgod, and the world of the roleplaying game Exalted. Really, you could drop the area here into the Exalted-verse, and players who had not read the book would be none the wiser, the feel of the book parallels that world so well. The world itself is a character, too, with a backstory that we get some but not the whole story for, and it is a strong character I would love to learn more about.
Another thing I appreciated about the worldbuilding is that the world extends off of the map, so to speak. Characters come from and know something about places that are off the edges of the depicted world, and this gives the world a feel reminiscent of the real world–we know about some places, and our neighbors know about ones further away, but there are parts of the world beyond this horizon.
The magic systems and divinatory systems are multiple, overlapping and somewhat contradictory. The ecology, for lack of a better word, feels like what a tangle of magic systems would feel like in a rich world where magic was possible. In this respect, the book reminded me of the Steven Erikson Malazan novels, where there is far more than just one magical pathway to power.
Blackdog, however, has tighter focuses in characters than the sprawling Malazan epics. We have a few characters who slip and in out of the narrative as the focus changes (and the time frame of the narrative runs in leaps and bounds from the start). Attalissa, as a incarnate goddess who starts off as a little girl, grows into a woman. I found her experience interesting, especially since her disconnection from the lake seemed to allow her personality to grow and change in a way it never would have if Tamghat the wizard had not come knocking. Holla-Sayan, caravan guard turned host for the Blackdog, is the other major character who grows up — a lot — over the course of the novel. His character is established early and sharply, and we see the consequences of his choices and his internal conflict with the Blackdog throughout the book. There are even a pair of mysterious independent protagonists, whose natures and goals are a major reveal of the book, and I do not want to say more about them for fear of spoilers. The antagonists, too, are well drawn. Tamghat is the antagonist of the book, and Iyah his daughter, both have agendas, personalities, driving passions and multidimensional facets. They never feel like cardboard villains, even if their desires are inimical to Attalissa and Holla.
The language of the novel shows off the author’s Medieval studies degree. Words, names,place names and more have a real patina of authenticity, and have a logic and structure to them that feels real and authentic. To give one set of examples: The goddess’ name is Attalissa. The name of the lake she rules is Lissavakail. One of her priestesses is named Attavaia. While these sorts of patterns might confuse some readers, they feel real, rather than the tendency of some writers to invent and borrow names without any sense of how the names work together.
The basic outline of the plot feels fresh: a wizard seeks to possess an earthly incarnated goddess for mysterious reasons. A coming of age story for said goddess, incarnated as a wagon brat on the run. Aside from stuff like Keyes’ novels from years ago, this is a rather uncommon set of tropes and ideas for a plot, and that freshness infuses the book.
One last thing. The book very much is a standalone book. It has a definite beginning, middle and end, and I didn’t determine any obvious hooks for a sequel. While from a business sense, writing a standalone novel instead of an interminable series might not be the best thing to do, from a reader standpoint, you get a whole and complete story when you read Blackdog.
So what didn’t work for me? Well, the novel skips ahead in time a couple of times, and in doing that, the threads of some intriguing characters get lost and obscured in the process. This is a shame, as some of these stories rival the main thread of Attalissa and Holla-Sayan, and I wanted to know more about their stories, how their lives unspooled over the years. It feels as if he author decided she didn’t want a 900-page debut novel, and so many of those threads and character stories fell under Atropos’ scissors. It is a pity, because rather than being cut off neatly, they feel stillborn. So, the portion of their stories we do see, in how they fit to the larger narrative, feels less than smoothly joined, and it weakens the novel as a whole.
Other than that criticism, this is a well done first fantasy novel. I was not surprised to learn that K.V. Johansen is a pseudonym, and that the author has previously published children’s books under her real name. If Johansen wants to write more epic fantasy, set in this world, I’ll happily read it. She has only scratched the surface of this world, and I’d love to follow more and new characters in the melting pot of cultures and magic and world she has created here.