The Storyteller and Other Tales is a book of stories, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I felt like I was transported from the 21st century to some Thane’s hall with a roaring fire and a smoke hole instead of a chimney, while K.V. Johansen wove tales that took me to different and wonderful traditions.
Johansen is a fantasy scholar, and this shows up clearly in this book. The four tales that she presents use widely differing fantasy settings. “The Storyteller” is set in a Scandinavia-like land, in a world of little gods, ancient devils and power-hungry wizards. “He-Redeems” is set in the bronze age, and is told from the perspective of a simple, devout slave, and demonstrates the problems with blind obedience. “The Inexorable Tide” is an Arthurian story, the way it might really have been, and an explanation of how some became heroes, others villains, when the truth was something much more simple and likely. Finally, “anno domini nine hundred and ninety-one: two voices” (“a.d. cmxci”) is the story of the English defeat at the hands of the Danes in one of the last Viking incursions, at Maldon, a generation before William conquered England.
Johansen demonstrates her mastery of different styles of writing with each of these stories. While “Storyteller” and “He-Redeems” are the standard third-person narratives, “The Inexorable Tide” was partially a first-person narrative told from the perspective of an old woman (Nimiane, the daughter of Merlin) long after Arthur, Mordred, Gawain and others have died. “a.d. cmxci” is different altogether, for the musings of the common men on the battlefield soldier are mixed with the epic verse of history.
I am awed by what Johansen has shown here, and I would love to see “The Inexorable Tide” expanded into a full length novel, for which, I suggest, there is ample material. I was drawn completely into that story — which seemed incredibly real and likely — and Johansen developed almost fully-formed characters in fewer than twenty pages of text. This particular story was my favourite, I think because the characters were so wonderfully real and vibrant. “a.d. cmxci” was intriguing and it helped me (who is completely unfamiliar with battlefields, except in history) understand why men stand and fight when all hope is lost. I cared least of all for “He-Redeems,” but that is probably because I had trouble identifying with the character — and that is my fault, not Johansen’s — and I have always preferred medieval fantasy over ancient fantasy. “The Storyteller” had an excellent moral (as did all of the stories), and it was another story that could be expanded into a novel but, again, my personal preference in fantasy types (I dislike gods that talk and get involved) did not allow me to enjoy this story as much, despite its amazing quality.
This very small book (under a hundred pages) needs to be savoured, because its only major disappointment is that it is so short. It could be easily and quickly read by anyone age 12 and up, though I think that older teens and adults will appreciate it most. The stories drip with atmosphere and feeling. Johansen’s background in history, medieval studies, and old English comes shining through, and she knows how to do characters. Nimiane, Mordred, and Guinevere, not to mention Arthur, Gawain and Amhar (Arthur’s bastard), spring from the page fully realized, and I long for Johansen to explore them further. This was a particularly wonderful story of how Arthur’s kingdom fell apart.
This wonderful offering from Johansen deserves an unabashed five stars. I hope she considers expanding “The Inexorable Tide” to a full, 1000-page novel.
ANGUS BICKERTON practises law in a small town in Eastern Ontario. He lives with his wife, their two youngest children, and their black lab in a 160 year-old stone home, which also holds his law office. He has become, through inadvertence bordering on negligence, an expert in money-pit properties, and in do-it-yourself repair and construction. He has always dreamed of writing novels, but so far he has only self-published a play about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ entitled The Gate.