Going home again is hard. Even if you are a ghostbuster of sorts, or at least have an unusual relationship with spirits. Even if one of the greatest warriors east of the former Empire of Tiypur is your best friend. Going home again is hard when you are, were, a fugitive ex-slave, and when returning home means facing your true nature, a destiny you have run from and which you, Ghu, must now face. Facing destiny means, too, a lot of housecleaning, and just possibly, a revolution against an usurping Empress. This is the story at the heart of Gods of Nabban, the latest novel from K.V Johansen, a standalone story that continues the Seven Devil saga, after The Leopard and The Lady.
Johansen provides an espansie fantasy backdrop for the stories of Ghu; of Ahjvar, his best friend and possible lifemate; and of the myriad other characters who inhabit this novel. The Seven Devils setting is a deep-time epic fantasy world that will be familiar to readers of Steven Erikson’s Malazan novels: a widescreen landscape, taking in a variety of cultures, many of which escape the genre-standard Western European model. A world full of local gods, genius loci, actors and acted upon, a world mostly neglected by the old gods that created it, thanks to the action of seven beings of power and myth who have shut them away from their creation. The stories of those Seven Devils, who plague the world of man and the gods to this day, are the engines that drive events in disparate parts of the world. It’s an amazingly detailed world to get lost in.
This particular tale takes place mainly in the eponymous realm of Nabban, on the far east of the continent. The stories in the sequence have progressively moved their focus further and further eastward, covering a variety of settings inspired by terrain that ranges from Central Asian mountains, deserts, and steppe. The comparisons are never exact; though Marakand, the setting of Ghu’s earlier adventures, rhymes pleasingly with the desert city of Samarkand, is a city in and of itself. This novel’s Nabban, similarly, may invoke ancient China, but it never apes it.
And then there are the characters: a swordsman/assassin no longer possessed by a ghost, but still possessing deadly skill. A ghost-banishing refugee with a strange relationship to the gods of Nabban. Tortured poets, grassland wizards, and a sorceress who may hide one of the Seven Devils within her, and the mysterious Empress herself. How did she come into power? Who, or what, is really backing her? This is a novel that begins with an extensive dramatis personae, and you’re going to need it, as Johansen brings countless characters, small and large, to life.
Though this is a work that can be read in isolation, its greatest strength may be the way Johansen has painstakingly interlaced it with threads that connect to other works in the sprawling Seven Devils universe—including some that remain as yet unwritten. It is rife with resonance of the events of the two Marakand novels, The Leopard and The Lady. There are also intimations of the first novel set in the world, Blackdog. These nods to dedicated readers may create moments of confusion and mystery for newcomers, but their existence is necessary when considering this book as part of a much larger whole. This story is a large square in a tapestry, a single tale that touches many others. If not necessarily for the reader, for these characters, the adjacent sections of the masterwork are absolutely crucial—and so too the stories yet to come. This book, like the earlier installments, hints of a greater conflict to come
Though the book does indeed work in isolation, I might recommend readers begin earlier in the sequence—primarily, paradoxically, because Gods of Nabban is such an engrossing work. Blackdog was an excellent, seemingly standalone immersion into this world. The Leopard and The Lady improved on the previous effort by telling a more expansive, yet more potent story of a desert city seething under threat, and the powerful figures drawn to that conflict by choice and chance. Gods of Nabban is the best of the lot. It dares to deal with the fate of an entire nation, and of apotheosis. It is a road trip story and a saga about the fight for a nation’s fate, and the strength of the writing more than matches the scope. It is Johansen’s best novel yet, especially for readers who have been along for the ride thus far.