THE LAST ROAD by K.V. Johansen (Book Review)
I was privileged enough to get an early read of this novel from the publishers and the author, for which I’m hugely grateful, as this is the concluding volume of what has been one of my favourite series ever.
To avoid any suspense, as if there was any doubt, The Last Road is a brilliant end to a fantastic series which deserves to be read far and wide, as it’s simply one of the finest epic fantasies I’ve ever read – rich and lyrical, timeless and unique, powerful and poignant, wondrous yet real, full of characters that will stay with me forever, and a world I feel privileged to have visited, for much too short a time.
Long ago, in the days of the first kings in the north, who were Viga Forkbeard, and Red Geir, and Hravnmod the Wise, there were seven devils, and their names were Honeytongued Ogada, Vartu Kingsbane, Jasberek Fireborn, Twice-Betrayed Ghatai, Dotemon the Dreamshaper, Tu’usha the Restless, and Jochiz Stonebreaker.
So, here we are at last – The Last Road. Even that title filled me with a sort of warm melancholy, as I knew I’d be facing the end of one of my favourite series, and a final goodbye to some of my favourite fantasy characters – gods, devils, and demons though they were.
First, I should probably (briefly) explain how we got here. It all started with Blackdog, an epic tale in itself, concerning a goddess forced to flee from her land by a devil, and the shapeshifting dog-warrior that protects her. As that story resolves (in such a way as to make it an effective standalone), a larger plot unfolds, concerning the seven devil-wizards of legend. The fate of the gods and folk of the gateway city of Marakand is wrapped up in this devilish plot, and the next two books – The Leopard and The Lady – tell their story, and introduce two key characters – the undead assassin Ahjvar (the Leopard) and his mysterious sidekick Ghu. Their tale continues in the next book, Gods of Nabban, and in many ways the ending there seems to put things to bed…for a few hundred years.
But the tale of the seven devils and the Old Great Gods is not over, as we’re only five devils down (or, at least, accounted for), with two to go. And one of them has been very busy…
The Last Road is in some ways the most focused of the sequence, concentrated as it is on this final confrontation. The series has been one of interwoven stories, where each volume (counting the two Marakand books as one) tells its own tale within the larger arc, rather than being one of those long, linear series where everything continues chapter by chapter, book by book. The Last Road does have some new arcs, told through new characters, but really it’s about wrapping up what has been the binding thread but always the secondary plot of the sequence.
And it’s all the better for it, giving the reader who has followed all the way along exactly what they want. There’s a bit of an ‘Avengers Assemble’ vibe as the final confrontation nears, with all the larger-than-life characters gathered from across the series out in the open, working together, no longer stalking around each other like wary predators. That’s not to say it’s all straightforward, because the adversary the author puts up is truly the most frightening yet.
The All-Holy, a vaguely Abrahamic god-prophet, crusading against the gods of the earth, demons, and devils on the supposed behalf of the Old Great Gods and the souls of his followers, with his vast army of converts and subverts…well, we know who he really is by now. But he’s also exactly the perfect enemy for the world of the Caravan Road: a zealot, a would-be god out to swallow all the local gods – who live in the rocks, springs, or rivers of their lands, protected and protecting their people but never seeking dominion. This enemy threatens the balance of the world, a wondrously diverse range of lands that all just about get along, tied together by the commerce of goods and ideas along the Caravan Road(s), where life may be hard but there is wisdom, kindness, found families – a place for everyone, if they can find it. A world worth fighting for.
Luckily, we have some epic heroes to defend it. The Blackdog, Holla-Sayan, a tenacious guardian grown weary of immortality. The devil-wizard Yeh-Lin Dotemon, once conquering empress, now serving the new god of her old land. The devil-wizard Moth, or Ulfhild Vartu, charged by the Old Great Gods to carry the cold blade Lakariss against her fellow devils. Her half-demon, shapeshifting lover Mikki, a bear of a man, when he’s not actually a bear. And, of course, Ahjvar and Ghu. Together, more than a match for what comes, surely?
The action unfolds in a wonderfully KV Johansen way – never one to take the direct route, as described in a guest blog on this site. First we see the height of the wave, the panic and flight and steely determination in the face of mounting, insurmountable odds. Then we go back and find out how we got here, who the new people are, and get glimpses of the steps already taken to prepare for the coming conflagration. Then, the stunning, breathless denouement, with new revelations and poignant goodbyes.
Perfect, as far as I’m concerned.
Johansen’s writing is as lyrical and captivating as ever, and this may just be – fittingly – the best-crafted book of the series, the author inhabiting her world so comfortably, her characters so surely. And what characters, what a world! The world of the Gods of the Caravan Road is one of the richest, most vibrant, most real worlds I’ve had the pleasure to visit. It’s very much based on the medieval Silk Road, but without being a copy, and with wondrous magic, living gods, deep lore, and intricate details all woven seamlessly in. No hand-holding or infodumps here (in fact, it’s deliciously tough with the reader). Characters switch between languages; local flora and fauna add colour and texture; the vast and varied lands become as familiar and real as any we have trekked back and forth across. This is masterful stuff, of which I’m in awe, and why I crave this series above all others.
So why does it sometimes seem like I’m the only one who knows about it?
Not every fantasy sets out to do the same thing, obviously. Some are action-oriented, straight-arrow plots, swords and shields to the fore. Some are about mastering intricate magic systems, or navigating exhaustive real-political rivalries. Some want a story done in just one book, or three – or fourteen. Many eschew extraneous detail, or forego the decoration of language beyond a simple delivery system. And I read – and enjoy – plenty of those books.
The books of the Gods of the Caravan Road, to me, are far more special.
They might not be for everyone, but I’m sure there are people out there crying out for books like this, even if they don’t quite know it – as I didn’t when I started. Take a chance, I implore you, and journey the Caravan Road, at least once.
Me, I think I’m going to go back and start my journey again fairly soon, once I recover from The Last Road.
THE LAST ROAD is the fifth and final book in the Gods of the Caravan Road sequence, and is available now!