K.V. Johansen’s complex high fantasy: Blackdog.

K.V. Johansen. Blackdog (Pyr 2011).

There’s a good reason the jury put Blackdog on the Sunburst shortlist: it’s a fine, complex high fantasy set in a fully realized secondary world with a deep implied history & a fascinating array of local gods & goddesses who rule their people & are known to them. The eponymous figure of the Blackdog has served the goddess Attalissa, goddess of Lissavakail, for centuries, manifesting in one warrior after another, just as the goddess, unlike all her fellow gods of lakes & hills, has manifested in a living woman, born exactly nine months after the death of her forbear avatar.

Blackdog, a highly subtle narrative weave of various stories, some of which have roots far back in this world’s history & mythology, begins as a simple tale of sudden attack & escape. Lissavakail (Attallissa’s lake), a successful town with its fortified island temple sanctuary for the goddess, high in the mountain range, The Pillars of the Sky, finds an army in its midst that could not possibly be there, as any such army would have had to march at least two days from the Red Desert to the North. Yet, as the warrior priestesses rally to defend their goddess & Otokas, the current Blackdog, senses a powerful wizard behind the attack, his 8 year old goddess tells him that this figure could eat her up. Although the Blackdog seeks only to protect his goddess, usually by attacking any who attack her, Otokas realizes that this avatar, not yet come into her full power, could indeed see her power, her very godhood, swallowed up by this Tamghat, a wizard far more powerful than any such should be. So he take the young girl away by a secret passage under the lake, while the Sisters die trying to protect her. In doing so, he’s mortally wounded & the immortal Blackdog must find a new human to inhabit. That turns out to be a desert mercenary, Holla-Sayan, who is riding from the burning town where he had been drinking & stops to help this little girl with her dying dog.

That’s the narrative set-up, & it seems simple enough. Holla-Sayan (named partly after the god of The Western Grass where he was born, & that connection proves important) doesn’t want the dog, but cant help but feel compassion for the weak little girl he has found. So he brings her to the trading city of Serakallash (whose own goddess of its Spring, Sera, wants nothing to do with her), where his caravanserai is about to set out across the deserts on another trek protecting merchants & their goods. He says the girl, now named Pakdhala, is his bastard child, & he hopes to take her home & leave her there, something the Blackdog will never allow, all of which leads to many complexities in both is & her relations with the mercenary company. Meanwhile Tamghat has discovered not only that she has escaped but that she is also far too young for him to ‘marry,’ which he had hoped to do without so much fighting. So he takes over the town, & eventually, all the surrounding area, including, at great cost to its goddess, Serakallash, & the mountain mines of the people who still worship their hidden god, long ago conquered by Attalissa.

And with these developments, Johansen starts to weave a much more complex group of connected narratives. Tanghat (whose name signs his doubled nature: both once human wizard & devil [a term that will slowly be defined by a variety of figures in the novel]) needs to take the power of the goddess at a particular conjunction of the stars, which wont happen again for 7 years or so, when she will be grown enough to marry. So he is happy enough to extend his control of the people he now ‘governs.’ And he can brainwash all the new priestesses he creates, get them to believe he has come to ‘rescue’ the goddess from the demon Blackdog. But some Sisters escaped, & they slowly develop an underground resistance through the mountain villages while finding some welcome aid from a few merchants & mercenaries in Serakallash. Into these ongoing activities, which Johansen presents with subtle characterization of a wide range of figures, come Moth, a Northron woman with a strange sword, & her lover, the bear-man, Mikki, both of whom are much more than they seem. She is on a kind of quest to track down such as Tamghat, though she can be distracted by spells & her own desire to live a quiet life. And then there’s Tamghat’s wizard daughter, by his vengeful & now dead wife (& that’s a fine little tale of its own fitted into the ongoing larger narrative), utterly cowed by him & sent off to find the little goddess who seems able to evade his magical questing after her.

Johansen has constructed a carefully woven multiple narrative here, with a number of interesting protagonists (&, as protagonist of his own tale while antagonist in all the others, Tanghat, who seeks the goddess’s power for reasons that resonate so far back in the world’s history almost no one remembers them), all of whom she gives some personal perspective to. The humans behave as humans will, & that, the novel implies, is what makes things so difficult for gods, devils, & wizards. The writing is sharp, witty when required, good on catching those small details that fix a characterization. And supporting it all, there’s a quiet little bildungsroman about a girl who is also a goddess growing up, for the first time in centuries, in a situation that allows her to actually understand what it means to be ordinarily human. A central aspect of that: the wholly ordinary love she has for & what she learns about life, loyalty, & love from her ‘father,’ Holla-Sayan. And, in the tense & powerful conclusion, this understanding proves to be what allows her to have any chance of defeating her foe, with a little help from her friends both known & unknown.

Blackdog is a terrific entertainment, but it’s also a thoughtful exploration of various kinds of power & the responsibilities that accrue to it. Johansen has created a world large in both space & time, &, indeed, because its geography is so thick with history (of both gods & their peoples), the singular tales Blackdog tells have a richness & depth lacking in so many more conventional fantasies.

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