Friday, January 13, 2012
It’s not often that I choose to read a book based only on a comparison with another, but that was the case for Blackdog by K.V. Johansen (Book Depository, Powell's Books, Indiebound). I saw several reviews and they all mention Blackdog as a favorable comparison to The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. I can see where the comparison comes from – gods and demons that actively interact with humanity and have flaws all their own that mirror and even magnify those of humanity. However, excepting that rather trivial comparison, I did not find Blackdog to be really comparable with Malazan. It took me a bit to get over that – after all, I’m a big fan of Erikson and Malazan, however it is unfair to Blackdog, a work that has a much more mythic feel than the stark realism of Malazan, to judge only on the (failed) comparison. The feel of the world of Blackdog is more lyrical and poetic, lending it the feel of myth and legend, all the while maintaining something of a modern-seeming realism at its surface. And Blackdog is essentially a stand-alone (though a sequel is in the works, I don’t think it’s intended as a traditional series) while Malazan is epic that spans 10+ books and has enormous depth that Blackdog simply does not.
In the world of Blackdog humanity is as divided by which god they follow as they are by race, clan and nation. Essentially the entire land is filled with gods – gods of rivers, springs, lakes, hills, plains, that big rock over there, etc. Some of the gods are rather powerful with large followings, others are weak and out of touch with the world. Some are harsh, some are benevolent, some are peaceful, some are warlike, and some are completely insane. There are demons as well, though they play a lesser role than gods, and there are devils – god-like entities that are often more powerful than gods and were imprisoned away from the world after a big war in antiquity that nearly destroyed the world. Those devils are gaining their freedom and the gods are scared.
The Goddess Attalissa of the lake is continually reborn into a mortal form. She is surrounded by worshippers and protected by the Blackdog – a powerful creature that is both man and beast. A mysterious wizard appears that is more powerful than the goddess and the Blackdog who usurps her lands and temple and forces the goddess and Blackdog to flee. The goddess, only a girl, is raised on caravan route under the watchful eye of the Blackdog as she grows into her power and plots her return. Meanwhile, the mysterious duo of Moth and Mikki hunts the wizard for their own purposes.
Blackdog invokes a feeling of a time long past, a hard time, but also a simpler time. The mountain folk keep to themselves and deal sparing with traders who travel from spring to spring along the caravan route between the harsh worlds of the high mountains and the inhospitable deserts. There are great nomads of grasslands, people of the northern forests and those of distant lands not described. The world feels both small and large. Blackdog is really a near-perfect example of worldbuilding – the setting is familiar yet not the carbon-copy medieval England so common in fantasy. The history is deep, but not dwelled upon. The world is vast, yet we only see a relatively small portion of it. The people and cultures feel real, unique and cleverly worked from cultures long past. I suppose this is what you would expect considering Johansen with scholarly roots in medieval studies.
The story itself is pretty good, though I think it bogs down a bit in the middle. Blackdog isn’t a short book at 546 pages and it could have benefited from a smaller page count. However the end was both the best part and one of the more disappointing. Simply put, the payoff is great and the way the pieces were placed throughout the novel and came together for the finale was spectacular. Relatively few endings of books feel so satisfying. However, some of the events seemingly came out of nowhere. The proper set up, particularly with Moth is lacking and leads to confusion. The ending of Blackdog could have stood out among the best in fantasy today, instead it was just flawed enough to hold it back.
Another issue with Blackdog is the characterization. I found many of the main characters difficult to become invested in. They were likeable enough, just not engaging to the point that I was rooting for them to win. This made the book far too easy to set aside for other things. Hopefully Johansen can get a bit better at this since I think this world has a lot of potential.
Blackdog is a relatively strong debut into adult fantasy fiction by author Johansen. However, it is overly long and at times a bit confusing. I loved the atmosphere and mythic quality to the writing and the worldbuilding very well done. The end was strong, if flawed, and the characters just not as engaging as they should have (until the end, which one of reasons the end of the book was so relatively strong). Blackdog stands alone, though at least one sequel is planned, and I’m looking forward to see where Johansen takes us next.