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REVIEW: Blackdog by K. V. Johansen


Title: Blackdog
Author: K.V. Johansen
Pub Date: September 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An interesting epic fantasy that narrowly focuses on characters while playing with epic fantasy tropes.

It is tough to write an epic fantasy that adheres to the sub-genre’s conventions while still offering something new and innovative. Different authors use different techniques: Sanderson’s Mistborn subverts the idea that the hero always wins, Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series expands the scope of epic fantasy (see my earlier review), and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy undermines the trope of the perfect hero (see my earlier review). In her US adult debut Blackdog, K.V. Johansen builds a sense of narrow-focused hyper-locality embedded within a larger epic structure. By going small, Johansen is able to make her perspective characters, their struggles with madness and redemption, and the world they populate particularly compelling.

Blackdog opens from the perspective of Otakas, the protector of a remote mountain goddess named Attalissa. Otokas is an aging warrior, possessed by the mad spirit of the Blackdog. The Blackdog is crazy – utterly and implacably obsessed with protecting its goddess. It has gone centuries possessing one warrior after another, willing or not. From the opening pages we get the sense that Otokas and his predecessors walk a thin line between sanity and madness, constantly struggling against the Blackdog’s violent obsession.

Right away, we are given an interesting, compelling character whose perspective establishes the basics of Johansen’s world. In this world, gods are fundamentally tied to a particular place. Attalissa is not an all-powerful (or even moderately-powerful) goddess. While she may be the most powerful deity in her neighborhood, that neighborhood is still a backwater. Far away, there are empires and grand cities…but neither Otokas nor his goddess are interested in those places. They have one small corner of Johansen’s world, and the rest can go hang. Otokas’ mild irreverence and his dry, cynical sense of humor are put to good effect establishing this attitude. It immediately tells us that Blackdog is concerned with local matters, not the fate of the world. But while Attalissa and Otokas may be uninterested in the wider world, within the first chapter that world decides that it is interested in them. A warlord appears (literally) with an army on their doorstep, and Attalissa – an immortal goddess incarnated as a mortal child – and Otokas must flee to keep the goddess from being devoured. Otokas is able to get Attalissa out of her temple, but he is badly wounded. When he dies, the spirit of the Blackdog possesses Holla-Sayan, a foreign warrior traveling through Attalissa’s domain.

That first chapter is quite an action-packed opener, as within the first couple of pages we meet a compelling protagonist (Otokas), and right away find ourselves under siege. Despite the hard-hitting action, Johansen does an excellent job of keeping her world-building accessible, sliding it in between the arrows and sword fights. By adhering closely to her perspective character’s perception of the world, she gradually lays her world-building blocks. She manages this so subtly that the devices she utilizes are almost transparent: I had to look for them to find them hidden in the text. My first time through the book, I just got caught up in the adventure.

By the time we meet Holla-Sayan (and having read the back cover copy), I pretty much thought I knew what to expect from the plot: Holla-Sayan would be the hero, keep the goddess safe, wait for her to mature into her full power, try and organize some sort of resistance, come back and kick the warlord’s butt. And while in the loosest possible sense the book does follow this framework, the way in which Johansen executes it is particularly interesting.

This is not a standard “savior returns” fantasy: our “hero” is concerned first with keeping his own sanity, and only secondly with a warlord who did him personally little harm. Instead of focusing on the warrior/mentor/hero dynamic, Johansen builds a believable assemblage of secondary perspective characters who all act under their own agency. Since it will take years for the goddess to mature into her powers, she will need some sort of nascent resistance organization in place. But with Holla-Sayan too busy struggling with the Blackdog, this task is told from the perspective of one of Attalissa’s warrior priestesses. Holla-Sayan and the goddess actually spend most of the book completely ignorant of the goddesses’ supporters back home.

Each of the book’s six or seven perspective characters – including the warlord Tamghat and the goddess Attalissa – has a dark history that they are (in one way or another) trying to get through. Holla-Sayan is the only relative innocent among the lot of them, though his innocence is pointedly juxtaposed against the Blackdog’s animal savagery. While dealing with the superficial objective of defeating Tamghat or capturing Attalissa, each of the book’s key characters has to come to terms with themselves and their past choices. Johansen handles this emotionally fraught territory skillfully, offering a distinct flavor and different resolution to each of their stories. Where the resolutions do not satisfy, it is solely because some true conclusions are by their very natures unsatisfying: that is their point.

If there were a cheap “How to Write Epic Fantasy” book out there (and I’m sure there is somewhere) I suspect it would have at least one chapter on the value of epigraphs for world-building. Epic fantasy titles routinely get mocked for starting each chapter with a fragment of epic poetry, or a legend, or a piece of a history book, etc. from the book’s universe. As a reader, I’m always a little leery of epigraphs. Sometimes, I find them useful and insightful, but mostly I find they just take up space and add little to either the world-building or the story. I admit, after reading the first or second epigraph in a book, I’ll usually just skip the rest until after I’ve read through the text at least once. K.V. Johansen, however, eschewed epigraphs in Blackdog. Instead, she concluded certain chapters (particularly the early chapters) with a brief paragraph from an old-fashioned storyteller’s tale.

At first glance, one might be tempted to ask who cares? But by placing her epigraphs at the end of her chapters, Johansen is able to more effectively manage her pacing and the reader’s insight into the plot. The early chapters of Blackdog were particularly fast-paced and action-packed, and the epigraph at the end of the chapter gave much needed breathing room, an opportunity to pause and absorb the preceding events before diving into the next frenetic chapter.

Furthermore, the epigraphs adequately serve the function Diana Wynne-Jones lampooned with her “Legends” entry in the The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: they take us out of the perspective character’s head, and provide the reader with a brief glimpse into omniscient perspective. By carefully controlling what information is disclosed, we can put a number of facts together before our perspective characters do, which makes it that much more satisfying when our heroes catch up to us and figure it out. It’s a tried-and-true device frequently found in epic fantasy, and executing it deftly requires a careful balancing act: too much information, and the book yields no surprises. Too little, and the epigraphs offer no value. Johansen’s epigraphs – which only appear at the start of the book – manage this tightrope very effectively.

Johansen also uses creative dialogue markers to support her storytelling. Many of the perspective characters wrestle with madness and possession, which means that they have a lot of conversations with themselves. For those characters who are deeper in the throes of madness, or when the lines between their personalities grow more blurry, internal dialogue shifts from conventional form to more of a European fashion: Roman (straight, non-italicized) text, preceded by em-dashes, and lacking any “he said / she said” markers. This is particularly effective in the latter half of the book, where it amplifies the blurred and swirling wash of personalities within some characters’ heads. The overall effect is one that allows the reader to enjoy the whirlwind of madness and identity while still keeping characters and their diverging personalities straight.

Of the book’s perspective characters, only Attalissa did not appeal to me: this is the book’s primary weakness, and the reason why I’m giving it three stars. The goddess is one of the book’s most central characters, yet she has the least agency of them all. At the beginning of the book, when she is a little child, this is understandable and acceptable. But as she grows up, she continues to be passive and let events happen to her rather than take charge of them. This is understandable, given the character’s psychological make-up and history, yet nonetheless, it noticeably slows the pacing significantly in the chapters told from her perspective. It is not until the book’s climax that she becomes an active force, at which point her chapters accelerate to match the rest of the book.

Barring this one weakness, I quite enjoyed Blackdog. I felt that all of the characters were competently executed, even if Attalissa’s passivity throughout the book’s middle third bothered me. The world-building and the textual devices employed particularly stood out as interesting and of noticeable quality in the story. I would recommend Blackdog to people who have been exposed to epic fantasy before: this is not as accessible as (for example) David & Leigh Eddings’ work for new epic fantasy readers, but it is much more accessible than a lot of the hardcore epic fantasy out there. I believe fans of Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks in particular will enjoy this book.

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