When was the last time you read an epic fantasy saga that was one self-contained volume, with all of the sweeping adventure and huge mythic sacrifices in just one book? These days, it seems as though any epic fantasy has to be at least a half-dozen volumes, and this often appears to be driven by marketing as much as by storytelling needs.
Enter Blackdog by K.V. Johansen, a fairly recent done-in-one epic fantasy that delivers all the thrills, and complicated mythic trappings, without any "to be continued." Spoilers ahead...
Blackdog came out about a year ago, but it only just got on our radar. And it's a pretty neat story about the struggle between gods and devils, in which the mythic stuff is entangled with the human dimension in a way that makes both of them feel more real and exciting. In particular, Johansen (who's written a lot of children's books) has a real gift for mixing up the huge gods-and-prophecies stuff with the small, quirky character moments.
And she's created a pretty neat mythos for this novel, which is a bit different from anything I've seen before. In Blackdog's world, there are the Old Great Gods, who've largely left the world behind, and no longer intervene directly. And then there are newer, lesser gods and goddesses, who are sort of like genius loci — there's the goddess of a local lake, or a spring, or a particular mountain or desert, who is tied to that one place and draws his/her power from it. And then there are devils, who lost a huge war with the Old Great Gods long ago and have been imprisoned... until now.
Blackdog plays with all of this mythos in a pretty enthralling fashion. Attalissa is the goddess of her local lake and the nearby town of Lissavakail — and unlike most of the other gods, she's stuck in human form. She gets reincarnated as a girl in the town every time her mortal host dies, and then her little-girl form is weakened until she grows to adulthood and comes into her full power. Unfortunately, when Attalissa's latest body is still a relatively powerless little girl, a wizard named Tamghat arrives and conquers her town, seeking to possess Attalissa's power for himself — and it turns out that Tamghat is no ordinary wizard.
Attalissa is forced to flee her own town, in the company of her mystical bodyguard, the Blackdog — who's a demonic spirit that possesses a mortal man. Soon afterwards, the mortal host of the Blackdog is killed, and the protector spirit is forced to choose a brand new host, a Grasslander named Holla-Sayan who wants nothing to do with the struggles of gods and demons. Holla is forced to protect a vulnerable little girl on the road, while also fighting for control of himself with a wild spirit that really does act like a guard dog whose owner is threatened.
Holla shares a goal with the Blackdog — the protection of Attalissa — but the dog doesn't really understand subtlety or strategy, and just wants to run wild and kill everyone who gets in its way. Here's a particularly neat passage where Holla is struggling to keep the dog under control:
Waking, he could imagine the dog within him, like a dog of his youngest brother's, one of those surly, devoted, one-man dogs. They shut it into a summer-empty cowshed while a bard did Fanag's final tattooing, before he went off to keep the vigil of his coming of age on the god's hill. The dog had seemed to know something terrible was underway; terrible as it saw it, at least: its master's pain. It paced and paced, and howled, and dug in frenzy at the door until its front claws were bleeding, torn away to the quick, and the pads of its feet full of jagged splinters. When Fanag did ride off to Sayan's barkash, numbed and bleeding and proud, Holla and his mother had gone to let the dog out. It could not walk, then, and he had almost wept to see it.
And a bit later, as Holla resolves not to join the host of others who failed to make the dog their own, and died "trapped and blind, dying alone and mad, dying berserk, unable to tell friend from foe," he muses:
He'd had a half-broken horse bolt under him before. Let it run out, where it could do no harm, and stay on. It would tire, and know itself mastered.
Johansen's writing is often that crisp. She manages to nail the classic "epic fantasy" tone of solemnity and grandeur, without giving in to the temptation for purple prose or excessive medieval-speak most of the time.
So as a story about a goddess on the run with her reluctant bodyguard, Blackdog is actually rollicking great fun. And it's usually at its best when it deals with the shifting relationship between Holla and the goddess, who poses as Holla's daughter by a mountain woman. After countless centuries of being obeyed, venerated, and above all sheltered, Attalissa is out in the world, earning her keep as a caravan worker and doing menial tasks for the rough caravan people.
And everywhere Holla and Attalissa go, they run into evidence of Attalissa's past arrogance — in centuries past, she's sent her followers on missions of conquest, undermining the neighboring gods and stealing their wealth and power for herself. Now that she's in a dire situation, facing an enemy she can't defeat, she's forced to ask some of the other gods for help, leading to some entertaining scenes of god politics.
And meanwhile, as the book goes on, Johansen turns out to have a gift for slightly ribald, highly quotable humor:
"But is she pretty?" Great-grandmother's voice rose querulously. "My Tsutsu should marry a pretty girl."
"She's got a sharp sword," Elsinna answered. "It's like a rich man, Great-grandmama. A rich man is always handsome, and a woman with a good sword is always pretty."
The other thing a fantasy epic needs is high stakes, and luckily the evil wizard Tamghat is a total bastard, who basically wants to take over the world. The more we see of Tamghat, the more we loathe his arrogance and the way he's crushed Attalissa's worshippers under his brutal rule, twisting the truth so that many of them believe (or pretend to believe) that Tamghat is actually trying to save Attalissa from a demon that's kidnapped her. Tamghat's world is a dystopia where not only are tons of people enslaved and turned into "bondfolk," but also where people are coopted and local leaders wind up becoming collaborators and worse.
A lot of my favorite fantasy novels in recent years have dealt with the relationships between people and gods — I'm thinking especially of N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy. And often, the most interesting magical stories have to do with mortal, ordinary people caught up in the stories of ancient, somewhat unknowable entitities, who turn out to have human qualities when you least expect it. Blackdog is a nice addition to this tradition, because the relationships between people and gods are more complicated, and often just as emotionally intense as the relationship between people.
Through characters like Holla, as well as some other priests and priestesses who are touched by the gods they serve, Blackdog explores the line between demonic possession and being taken up by the gods. And we learn that the line between mortals and immortals is a lot fuzzier than anyone realizes — especially once we finally learn the backstory behind the creation of the Blackdog and the reason why Attalissa is reborn in mortal form, over and over again. This crucial piece of backstory, which happened so long ago that even Attalissa herself has forgotten it, is a pretty big surprise but makes perfect sense — and then it changes how you look at everything that's come before.
Unfortunately, there's one major drawback to doing an epic fantasy in one book — the ending feels a little too slight, after all that build-up. Certain events that we've been waiting a few hundred pages to see unfold happen way too quickly, and the actual climax of the story feels somewhat rushed and even a bit perfunctory. Johansen, who was so good at drawing us into the story earlier on, suddenly resorts to a lot of telling instead of showing, at the worst possible moment. The story still has a satisfying ending — but you might well be left wishing that Johansen could have spent even 20 or 30 more pages fleshing it out a bit.
All in all, though, this is a pretty great novel, with a world that draws you in, and a fully-formed mythos in just one volume. The different lands and their religious traditions have enough depth to them to feel like a real setting, and there are different systems of magic that get enough discussion to feel like something that people have actually studied across the millennia. Blackdog is an absorbing story of a man and a goddess on the run, struggling to survive against impossible odds — all in one can't-put-it-down volume.