REVIEW SUMMARY: Returning to the world of The Blackdog, Johansen crafts half of a story continuing the machinations of wizards, devils and Gods.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: At the trading city of Marakand, a Goddess’ move to build an Empire draws the attention of assassins, devils, and stranger folk.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Welcome return to a rich, diverse, secondary world fantasy that looks beyond the usual Western European models; gorgeous writing.
CONS: Pacing needs work; title of the book is misleading; feels like half of a story rather than a self-contained one.
BOTTOM LINE: While not without issues, this is a pleasing step back into a fantasy world and characters that beg for more exposure.

Marakand is a trading city sitting between two vast mountain ranges at the end of two great trading roads. One stretches into the West, through the deserts and The Great Grass, toward the sea. The other road runs far through the hills of Praitan, and further, into the mysterious East. For centuries, it has been a bustling stop on that connection of roads, but nothing more. The city is ruled by three deities, placidly making money off of travelers…until an earthquake strikes and two of the three Gods suddenly fall at the hands of the third one, The Lady. With a babbling priestess as her Voice and mouthpiece, a cadre of seemingly unkillable personal guards called Red Masks, and a visceral dislike for wizards and sorcery, The Lady rules with weapons of terror and fear. She sends out forces to subjugate and conquer the green hills to the east, something new and unprecedented for the trading town. What is her goal? And who can stop her?

Into this maelstrom come a variety of characters from across the world. A refugee, seeking to stop the Lady from claiming her homeland; an assassin, haunted by his curse and binding; the man who loves him, who would stand by him; a demon and his warrior lover from the north, who possesses a sword capable of slaying devils; and others. Whether they come to face the Lady directly and uncover the truth, or seek simply to survive, none of them can ignore the power and danger growing in the once quiet city stand.

Marakand is the second novel set in K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog universe. While Marakand is not directly a sequel, taking place some decades afterwards the events of Blackdog, several characters from that novel appear and events of that novel are referenced and mentioned lightly in the narrative. Marakand is explictly one half of a duology, the second half, The Lady, to be published later in 2014.

The writing in Marakand is the best selling point for me. Lush, beautiful prose fills the novel wall to wall, but never going to the level of purple. We get a full and deep view of the characters and the world around them, and what those characters do. At turns, the prose is poetic and bright, illustrating winding and lengthy sentences of dialogue and description and, when it requires it, detailed action. I found myself wonderfully immersed into the world and its characters simply by virtue of the language.

The world building, started in Blackdog, continues to develop and grow here by looking at a brand new area of the world Johansen has created. While a Tolkien comparison might be obvious on the surface, I think that Johansen’s work reads a lot more like Erikson, and shares some of the same elements: magic and gods, ancient powers bound and set loose; a rich history of conflicts, personal and otherwise, that inform the present. Johansen is far less interested in outright war, so there is no Chain of Dogs or scenes of conquest. The conflicts we see are on a personal scale that drive character development. The inspirations, visions and evocations the novel taps are distinctly Middle Eastern and Central Asian, rather than Western European. From characters that might’ve walked out of Siberian forests, to great grasslands, deserts and titanic mountains, the terrain and its peoples are anything but the usual medieval European. I can’t help but think that the name Marakand is an explicit allusion to Samarkand, trading city supreme on the Silk Road.

The major issue with the novel is that, this is not one half of a duology, but rather feels like one half of a large novel. The pacing and structure has us introduced to the titular Leopard, and he is shuffled offstage in a manner that one who reads the summation of the forthcoming The Lady can figure out. His companions also fall off the page. This does leave Johansen with a problem that she solves by introducing several new characters — including returning characters from Blackdog — but that gear shift feels extremely awkward and the novel loses its footing for a while in that transition. Also, the ending is nowhere near anything resembling a proper ending, more of a pause in the narrative, the end of a movement in a symphony which is not complete.

Is Marakand worth reading? I think it is, but I’m invested enough in the world and the author’s writing to trust that the second half, The Lady, will complete the story and that the two halves of this one story, when taken together, will stand together as a strong, unified story. This is a universe that feels like Steven Erikson in a Silk Road Fantasy context and is exactly the kind of fantasy I want to read.

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