While religion is often found in epic fantasy, rarely is it the main focus of a novel, as it is in Blackdog. It’s even more rare to find an epic fantasy that is a stand-alone rather than part of a long series or trilogy. While the fact that Blackdog is a stand-alone might turn some epic fantasy fans off, it is rather refreshing to read a fantasy on an epic scale that is contained within one book and has a definite beginning, middle and ending.
K.V. Johansen’s world building reminds me a bit of Steven Erikson’s MALAZAN series. The world is large, intricate and sprawls into lands that are just hinted at. It has a rich history which will keep the reader interested and yearning to learn more. Furthermore, the gods are steeped in that rich history and add an interesting dimension to both time and place as well as some interesting complexity and cultural nuances.
The gods in Blackdog are also somewhat reminiscent of MALAZAN because they’re actual beings that can be interacted and spoken with rather than being some vague idea that cultural nuances are based on. In fact, many of the cities and towns seem to thrive based on the health and power of their local god. For example, a few of the gods readers will meet in Blackdog are old and almost decrepit because they’ve been long forgotten, or only worshipped by a select few. As Tamghat, the warlord antagonist, expands his power, the gods begin to look human. They fear and anticipate just like humans would and their reaction to events directly and profoundly affects the communities they are anchored to.
Attalissa is the lake god who is forced to flee as a young girl and grows up as a human child in a caravan traveling a road similar to the Silk Road. Due to this human upbringing far away from her base of power, her coming of age tale is far different than you’d expect from a goddess. The same can also be said of Holla-Sayan, who spends much of the book locked in an inner struggle with the Blackdog.
While Blackdog is primarily the tale of Attalissa and Holla-Sayan, there are plenty of well-developed secondary characters to keep anyone entertained. The only problem with this is that due to the span of years covered and the epic-sized plot and world, some interesting characters with stories that could easily be expanded on seem to fade into oblivion quickly and unfortunately. Johansen uses a lot of interesting internal dialogue throughout the book as many of the characters are either wrestling with insanity or are possessed. Despite these struggles and possessions, the characters all retain their unique voices and individuality.
Naming conventions in Blackdog are confusing at first, but they are well thought out and give the reader an important sense of the world’s culture, as most characters seem to take on the name of their local gods somehow. For example, a priestess of Attalissa is named Attavaia and Holla-Sayan carries his local god Sayan’s name. Even places follow this pattern. Attalissa’s lake is named Lissavakail and the goddess Sera presides over the city named Serakallah. This, as other reviewers have noted, shows off Johansen’s master’s degree in Medieval Studies. These subtle details peppered throughout the book enhance the believability of this multi-faceted Asianesque world.
While I rarely mention cover art in a review, I feel like the cover art of Blackdog particularly supports the book. It’s artistic, ethereal and mysterious without being over-the-top. It causes potential readers to wonder what it’s all about, setting the perfect tone and attitude before the reader even cracks the spine and Johansen carries that through to the last page. Everything about Blackdog is measured, deep, planned and thought out. Johansen has created an incredible world and wonderful characters which I hope she’ll expand on in the future. Despite some abrupt character entries and exits and some confusing names, Blackdog is a real gem that fans of epic fantasy should check out.