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Bookends: A Tale of Small Gods and Twisted Ambitions June 3, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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BlackdogBy Dan Davidson

November 28, 2012



By K.V. Johanson

Pyr Books

525 pages



It’s always nice to discover something with a new flavour, and that is certainly what I got when I downloaded a copy of Blackdog after reading an enthusiastic review online.  This is a somewhat different fantasy. Though there are battles, quests and journeys galore, this is essentially a story about growing up and coping, and those elements create the strongest impression.

Johnson, a Canadian author of young adult and children’s fiction in various genres, is also a literary critic of some note, and has managed a neat bit of world building with this novel, which is apparently the first half of a larger story. Don’t worry about that part though. She’s managed to make this book feel quite complete in itself.

This is a story with gods and goddesses, demons and shapeshifters and all sorts of magic, and yet, the magic does not overrule the humanity of the characters.

Most of the gods herein are territorial beings, spirit forces who derive their power from the land or the water in which they dwell. There are greater divinities than these in the cosmos, but these interact with the world and with people. They are not human and do not have human motivations.

Except for Attalisa, the goddess of Lissavakail, who decided eons ago that she would embrace humanity by being incarnated as a child through the generations.  It’s not certain whether her incarnations are long lived, but what we know is that she is a pre-teen child, not yet grown into her full power, when this book begins, and it begins with events that might prevent her from ever achieving that state.

Her town, the center of her worship and power beside her lake, is attacked by forces led by a wizard named Tamghat who has bonded with a demon with a somewhat similar name. It is his intention to marry Attalisa, he says, but it seems more likely that he intends to absorb her power to increase his own.

Attalisa’s guardian is a man named Otokas, who is himself bonded with a creature that thinks of itself as a dog, and has the ability to transform into a terrifying Blackdog (hence the title) in defense of his charge/mistress. The Dog is a violent creature driven by emotion and it is the lot of its human hosts, down through the generations, to keep it o a leash until it is absolutely necessary to let it run. The benefits are enhanced physical abilities and long life, but the struggle wears on the mind and soul.

When Otokas is injured beyond the power of the Dog to heal him while escaping Lissavakail with the girl/goddess, he passes the Dog to a kind and capable young caravan guard named Holla-Sayan, who has no idea what he is getting into and had merely stopped to help an injured man and a little girl. The transfer is a kind of spiritual rape, not something Otokos would have wished to do, but something over which he had no control.

Holla-Sayan flees with Attalisa and seeks sanctuary among the trading caravans that ply this vaguely Eastern landscape.

It is the beginning of a seven-year quest to stay hidden, keep the girl (who is sickly when at a distance from her place of power) hidden from Tamghat, and come to terms with he beast that dwells within him.

Meanwhile, the remaining Sisters of Attalisa hide themselves and try to be ready for the day when their goddess will return to drive out the usurper. Chief among these is Attavaia, whose personal saga of growth and patience is as important to this story as any other part.

Midway through the novel two other characters wander in, and we begin to get a sense of the overall mythology that has been sketched in italic sections throughout the book. There was a great way between divinities and devils at various dimensional levels, and seven of the worst devils were imprisoned beneath the earth. One has broken out and is part of the wizard. These two additional characters, Moth (the former devil) and Mikki (a demon bear) have been hunting the escaped devil, believing him to be a danger to world and to the larger creation itself.

The sequel to this book will, according to Johanson’s website and blog, deal more fully with this pair, but this book does bring the story of its titular character and his charge, who is a young woman by the end of the novel, to a satisfactory conclusion.

Attalisa’s growing up has been different this time around. She has not been pampered and raised as a goddess incarnate, and it has changed her personality and her view of both herself and the world. One might say that the minor regional divinities of this world have an advanced sense of entitlement, and that she has learned better through her ordeals.

This was a fascinating book, different in style and theme from many fantasy novels. I’d compare it to the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, who also writes fantasy with a light touch of the fantastic.

I look forward to more from this author.





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