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The Leopard by K V Johansen

April 27, 2014 2 comments

The Leopard-1

Another day and another epic fantasy in which the author is obviously determined to break the mould and write the ultimate bait and switch book. So let’s remind ourselves of the basic rules. The book must be titled by featuring the lead character. Since this will usually be a wizard or someone with a useful skill like a thief, the names will usually reflect this, e.g. Hoho the Great, Axelrod the Unwashed or Weasel the Lightfingered. This protagonist will usually have a sidekick and, after sinking a few mugs of the local brew, they set off on a quest that will involve fighting three-lettered creatures like orcs (except when there’s more than one of them, of course). If the fan boys are lucky, a barbarian princess with optional fighting skills may be added to the mix. And so on.

So here we go with The Leopard by K V Johansen (Pyr, 2014) (first in a new Marakand duology) which is set in the same world as Blackdog and builds on the general mythology of that world. We start off with Deyandara. Now she’s a person with an interestingly opaque lineage. All we can say for sure is that she’s a bastard and because everyone else to whom she may be related has been killed off, she’s in line to take over the throne. Except, she’s not that keen on the idea having spent her youth not very seriously training to be a bard. However, all this is rendered somewhat moot because, within minutes of her being acclaimed queen by the few nobles who happen to be around, the local goddess, Catairanach, appears to her in a vision and, before you can say, “Rumpelstiltskin is my name,” she’s whisked off into the countryside on a minor quest. Sadly this goddess is strictly temperance, so our heroine is not allowed any of the local brew. She’s also denied the right for her name to title the book. This should give you a clue as to her importance.

K V Johansen

After a while, she finds Ahjvar. He’s an assassin with the nickname, The Leopard. “Ah ha!” you’re saying. “This is the guy who gives his name to the book (the spots help him hide in the shrubbery). Now we can get on with the story.” Better still, he’s got a sidekick called Ghu. Not surprisingly, because this is a fantasy with deities, demons and a practical system of magic in operation, Ahjvar has been cursed. The message from Catairanach is that he can be free of this inconvenience if he goes off on a quest to kill the mad prophet known as the Voice of Marakand. Actually it’s not much of a quest because the Voice is in the city of Marakand so it’s not that difficult to find her. He does get to drink, though, which is always a good sign. So after traipsing across the landscape doing their best to leave Deyandara behind, our team arrives in the city. Shortly thereafter, the assassin kills the current Voice, is captured, is converted into a soldier loyal to the reincarnated Voice and sent out of the city. Yes, that’s right. The titular assassin is not the long-running protagonist (he’s pushed out of the way so he can come back in book 2 and kick butt). Deyandara is also sent off to find whatever’s left of her kingdom. This leaves us to meet and greet a couple of characters from the first book who turn up in the city. They link up with a magician who’s been there for a while. They briefly link up with Ghu who hasn’t quite decided whether he should go off and try to rescue Ahjvar. And then there’s a lot of fighting with undead magicians being used to intimidate Marakand and its citizens. Obviously, they are quite difficult to kill, what with them being already dead. None of this zombie rubbish for them. They are pretty invincible unless they can be reminded they are already dead. That tends to break the spell animating them.

So the author is slightly playing a game with the readers, introducing new characters and then moving them into position for book 2, while characters we know something about reappear to carry us through to the evenly balanced ending where both sides need to regroup before launching off into book 2. I’m not prepared to say a great deal about the quality of the plot because it’s obviously one book divided into two parts for publication purposes. It could turn out very good. . . All I can say is that the prose is quite dense and full of reasonably interesting detail. Since we only have to wait until December to see how it all plays out, this may be worth picking up if you like epic fantasy.

For a review of the other book set in this world, see Blackdog.

The cover art from Raymond Swanland is rather pleasing.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Blackdog by K V Johansen

Mood is everything and, sometimes, when the world weighs heavy on old shoulders, it affects the way I see a book. In this case, I was feeling tired and the publisher has chosen a smaller font, so my old eyes were focused down more than usual to read the text. The result was that it took me longer than usual to get into Blackdog by K V Johansen (PYR, 2011). At first sight, it’s one of these routine fantasies. There’s a dark magician who uses magic to transport an army to capture the human avatar of a local Goddess of the Lake. He wants her in his bed before dawn or his name’s not Tamghiz Ghatai or Tamghat or the Lord of the Manor wanting to seigneur his droit. And it’s all going so well except the avatar, who’s still only a young girl in her latest incarnation, has a guardian spirit called Blackdog and he fights his way out of immediate danger, taking the girl Goddess with him. Except, on the way, his human host sustains injury so, just before the host dies, the Blackdog spots Holla-Sayan and, before you can say, “Bob’s your uncle”, the spirit has transferred himself into the new host. Unfortunately, Holla is not the local Spanish for, “Hi there, invading spirit! Allow me to welcome you to this body.” He’s more than a little put out. Sorry! He’s not going anywhere and fights back. So now with Blackdog inside the resisting new host, they set off into the wild blue yonder to find somewhere safe to hole up while they decide what to do.

Well, at this point, I was feeling not exactly full of the joys of spring. It seems our Goddess is less than all-powerful. Indeed, in her latest human body, she’s cowering like a little girl (sic) and then giving up like a wimp as she moves further away from her life-sustaining lake. The problem is that, if her current host dies, she will be reborn into the town now occupied by the dark magician and so fall under his power. So she needs to shape up, snap out of it and generally remember she’s an all-powerful Goddess. Fortunately, there’s a nifty bit of negotiation with a couple of the other Gods who turn up on their escape route, and they give her some of their strength — better than a blood transfusion service. When this perks her up, she also gets the benefit of some strong human role models around her. None of these namby-pamby worshippers lulling her into submissive femaledom. There are some pretty powerful people who shoot arrows, fight with swords and cuss, although not in her presence, of course. That might be considered disrespectful, Goddammit. So she’s generally inspired to come out of her shell and grow up to be a strong powerful woman who might be a Goddess when her confidence level is high enough.

Ms Johansen draws strength from the book before announcing Blackdog's arrival

So, yes, I’m mocking the basic plot more than usual. It’s taking a superficial feminist line that the usual gender roles are unequal and therefore affirmative action must be taken to correct the imbalance. Empowerment is the name of this game when a threatening man comes into view. He’s just decapitated his common law wife, the ultimate in being abusive and dominant. Fortunately, he still has a daughter to bully. Now he wants to absorb a Goddess. Well isn’t that just typical of a man. See something in a skirt which looks a bit tasty and all he wants is to get her into his bed and suck out her soul. This definitely needs some affirmative action to teach that Tamghat a lesson. Except the local Goddess of the Lake has run out of steam(?). You would think she would always be powerful no matter what the age of the body she occupies. Why would a supernatural being with centuries of experience act like a little girl just because she’s in a little girl’s body? It makes absolutely no sense. More interesting is the internal battle between Holla-Sayan and the invading Blackdog. He’s an innocent foundling and suddenly has to deal with another centuries-old being in his head — a kind of practical schizophrenia when the voice he can hear is real and its power to emerge from his body and kill most people within range is somewhat daunting.

There is, at least, some logic in the few survivors from the original attack moving into the hills and beginning the process of building and arming a fifth column, ready to move against the magician when the Goddess finally manages to get her act back together again. Obviously, this is a slow process made difficult because many of the local mountain folk want to appease the magician rather than confront him. We therefore have collaborators and Quislings to contend with. It also has the advantage that, if any other smaller local Gods were at risk, they could be swept up and moved out of harm’s way and, perhaps, even a priestess might have to get married. . . Then there’s Moth and Mikki, whoever they are, wandering around looking for the right road to travel. Perhaps, if they all teamed up, they might set the world on to a new track. Hopefully, it will be a change for the better.

So, when you put all this together, Blackdog is rather tedious. I had little interest in discovering why the Goddess of the Lake was such a weakling, nor how she’d upset the other deities making up the landscape of the world. Essentially, she’d become a weak creature and was only worth saving because, if Tamghat succeeded, the outcome would have been far worse. Although some of the prose is quite pleasing, the story is less so and, unless you’re one of these dedicated, “I must read everything in the fantasy vein, regardless of what critics and reviewers say”, this is definitely one to avoid.

The cover art from Raymond Swanland is rather pleasing.

For a review of the next book set on this world, see The Leopard.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For the record, Blackdog has been shortlisted for the 2012 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic.

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