Blackdog by KV Johansen (Pyr, 2011)
Whilst an established Canadian author of children’s sf and fantasy novels, Blackdog marks Johansen’s first foray into epic fantasy. The novel focuses on Attalissa, a goddess re-incarnated as a young girl, and her protector, the titular Blackdog, a spirit that possesses human hosts, as they attempt to deal with the threat of a powerful evil wizard who is attempting to consume the goddess’s power.
On the surface, it appears to have all the elements of a great epic fantasy: cosmic conflicts between good and evil, multiple character perspectives interweaving into a grander narrative tapestry, fascinating hints of legendary backstory and a diverse world setting. Unfortunately Blackdog does not quite live up to its promise since these elements never quite cohere. The story does not seem to know which it would rather be; a gentle, intimate tale following the coming-of-age of the young goddess incarnate or an epic battle between vast supernatural forces. In trying to be both, it has succeeded at neither.
An illustration of this concerns the Blackdog himself. While he is the eponymous character, the narrative vacillates unevenly between his role as guide and protector, reducing him to the position of supporting companion, and the exploration of his ‘curse’ and his repetitive struggles to overcome it. Indeed, even the character development concerning Blackdog will disappoint most, as all the twists and turns are heavily foreshadowed and never surprise.
Disappointingly, the world and story are told to the reader, rather than shown, resulting in a feeling of thinness and lack of texture. For a book of some 540 pages there is a surprising lack of detail, as plot, action, world building and character development are sketched rather than explored. The plot itself is simplistic, banal and so heavily foreshadowed that there are few, if any, surprises. The shifting of narrative focus between the personal narratives and the larger plot leads to both feeling lamentably underdeveloped. The climax of the plot is overly neat and split between the straightforward coming-of-age narrative and the obvious, underwhelming grand battle. When the disparate elements finally collide, it creates a sense of forced artifice rather than natural convergence.
In terms of action, there are few battles or fights and those included are hastily passed over and never approach ‘epic’ in nature. There is little tension in the short sequences and almost no sense of the viciousness of battle or the emotional repercussions of loss and death. While great authors can evoke much with simple descriptions, Johnasen never gives the reader the page length to fully immerse themselves in the action, and seems more inclined to skip over action sequences in favour of more bland character interaction.
This blandness affects the world itself as there is no real distinction drawn between the various locales, regardless of the radically different terrains. For a novel that traverses various locales, including desert, steppes, foothills and mountain tops, there is almost no real variance in how the world appears or is described. In fact how the characters interact with their surroundings and feel about the various landscapes is uniformly mundane. No matter where they are, each of the characters acts in exactly the same way, and it is seems a missed opportunity to explore the richness of the world that Johansen has built.
The characters are rarely distinctive and very few are developed beyond stereotypical or function-driven roles. Those few interesting characters are inevitably underused and underdeveloped. However, a major point in Johansen’s favour is her treatment of sexuality as she seamlessly integrates non-heterosexual characters into her world in a subtle display of acceptance without the use of gratuitous sex scenes or heavy-handed narrative underlining.
Two minor characters in this novel, Moth and Mikki, are the most interesting of the bunch, primarily because something is left to the reader’s imagination and their backstory is not painstakingly delivered as exposition. However, due to the fact that they are indeed minor, they are not really a selling point of this novel, although seeing them in later books would be great.
While Blackdog is not good as it falls short of both YA and Epic fantasy, it is inoffensively mediocre and tediously predictable rather than truly abysmal.
(Originally reviewed in Vector)