Leaflet Review: Blackdog by K.V. Johansen
In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from the 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 driven 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.
I picked up Blackdog because Lou Anders from Pyr raved about it at WorldCon. I couldn’t help myself after hearing how excited he was about it. I even sent my husband to Barnes & Noble without me so he could pick it up because the week after WorldCon I was too swamped with deadlines to do anything but edit. (P.S. Giving ourselves a book budget was perhaps the smartest money decision Mr. S and I ever made.)
So I guess that leaves the question: Did it live up to the hype?
Overall, I’d have to say yes. I immensely enjoyed the journey Johansen took me on (I also very, very, very much appreciated that the book’s storyline is complete and won’t require six more books to complete). In the beginning I was a bit hesitant, but I got over it and I’m grateful that I did.
Not So Great Bits
First, the not-my-favorite experiences I had with the book: The book opens from the perspective of Otokas, the man possessed by the Blackdog spirit and the protector of the lake goddess Attalissa (do note that deities in Blackdog are local deities—Attalissa is goddess of a particular lake, Narva has a mountain, Sera a stream, Kinsai a river, Sayan a portion of the Western Grass, etc.). Attalissa is, at this point, a young girl of 8 or 9 and she is powerless until she reaches womanhood. This beginning initially bothered me, because I was emotionally attaching myself to Otokas, who I knew was going to die and be replaced as Blackdog by Holla-Sayan—the back of the book told me so. So why was I spending multiple chapters in a soon-to-be dead man’s head? (I needn’t have feared: Otokas’s memories are relevant to the plot and [slight spoiler] Holla-Sayan receives them when he is possessed.) The first chapters are also full of action (i.e. the sacking of Attalissa’s town and temple), and some of the prose has a syntactic style that made it difficult for me to grasp what was going on or appreciate it. This syntactic quirk either died in later chapters or I learned to understand it, because it wasn’t a problem as the book progressed.
Very Great Bits
Worldbuilding. Now for the good. The worldbuilding was fun and diverse. I loved it. There were lots of different cultures within the book, and they’re fairly well differentiated. Most (if not all) have some sort of parallel with the real world—Nabban is like China, the Northrons are Scandinavian-esque, etc. Holla-Sayan’s caravan is very culturally diverse, and you get a taste of each culture from spending time with the caravaneers. Everyone has a sense of place, of connection to their people, their land, and their gods. Even magic comes in widely varying cultural styles, from the cats-cradle woven spells of the Western Grass to rune-based Northron spells and Nabbani divination based on the Sun–Moon dichotomy. The theme of place wanders throughout the book, even while you’re following people in a caravan.
Year-spanning plot and age-spanning backstory. I was immensely impressed with how Johansen handled the fact that the book spans several years and that the world and the characters all have complex backstories. There was a bit of an infodump when Holla-Sayan was introduced, but overall the character and world backstories are revealed elegantly in piecemeal, partially because different pieces are introduced from various viewpoint characters and cultural perspectives. The histories of the seven devils and the seven wizards that rocked the world with their war on the Old Great Gods is shared in storyteller-type epitaphs in the first portion of the book as well as through the character’s eyes. Spanning years and eons in one book is a feat I rarely see done to my satisfaction, buy Johansen excelled.
Viewpoint-character diversity. The diversity in the viewpoint characters was the highlight of the book for me. Each character has things that motivate them and drive them to action, and they’re all pretty sympathetic (the person I sympathized the least with was, incidentally, the Villain). Even though two characters may view the same event in completely different terms (for example, Attalissa and Moth view things very differently but remember a lot of the same time span), both viewpoints are validated and neither is necessarily marked as any worse than the other.
(Side note: I loved Moth’s character. She added a lot to the depth and diversity of the book, and she granted a level of humanity and sympathy to Tamghat—the Villain—that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise.)
(Other side note: Attalissa—or Pakdhala, as she is called while she is with the caravan—was probably the character it took me the longest to appreciate since she doesn’t really come into her own as a person for a long time.)
Conclusion and Disclaimer
Overall, I found the book immensely enjoyable, and I was very annoyed when I had to put it down to do something silly, like go to work. While I had my quibbles with this and that, those quibbles never marred my enjoyment of the story or of the characters. The plot is very multi-dimensional—far more so than I’ve communicated in this review, or is even hinted at in the back-cover copy. There is a grand scope to the novel even though it is isolated to location-specific characters and plot points. It has such a grand scope that I feared the loose ends wouldn’t be tied up by the final chapter and I’d have to wait for another book to come out, but Johansen neatly concludes Blackdog’s story. While there are certainly threads that could continue further (Moth’s quest is far from over, for example), the book is completely satisfying as a standalone.
I should also note that I’ve read a review or two that complain that it’s difficult to keep track of characters because each character has a name, a nickname, and possibly another name or two. I didn’t have a problem with this, but that’s probably because I was forewarned. So be aware: Attalissa is also ’Lissa, Pakdhala, and ’Dhala; other people also have a large variety of names. Go in prepared and it won’t be an issue.