Guest Post: “On THE LAST ROAD” by K.V. Johansen

JohansenKV-AuthorPicThe books of Gods of the Caravan Road have several central protagonists: Holla-Sayan in Blackdog, Holla, Ivah, Ahjvar, and Ghu, in The Leopard and The Lady, then Ivah and Ahjvar and Ghu in Gods of Nabban. However, the character to whom the series as a whole belongs is Moth, the devil Ulfhild Vartu. With the half-demon wer-bear Mikki at her side, she begins it, in “The Storyteller,” acquiring the black sword Lakkariss from the Old Great Gods in order to avenge her brother and Mikki’s mother on her cousin and former ally, Heuslar Ogada. She ends it, standing at the centre of events in The Last Road. In between, she and Mikki wander in and out of the others’ tales, with Moth, at least, avoiding ever becoming too close to any of them, even Ivah, in whom she sees perhaps an echo of her own lost daughter, but strongly, of herself.

In the books, Moth is a wanderer, possessing nothing but what she carries. In Blackdog, she and Mikki leave their cabin in the taiga and never return to live there again. They wander south, driven by her bargain with the Old Great Gods, the price she must pay for the sword, a shard of the cold hells and a weapon capable of killing even one of the twin-souled devils, her former comrades. Moth is a diviner, a wizard and a devil whose powers are not something belonging to this world of humans and demons and gods of the earth, and yet she wanders, slowly, casting back and forth like a hound seeking a most elusive scent. Perhaps her enemy Tamghiz Ghatai is working to distract and confuse her — he certainly thinks so.

Perhaps she doesn’t really want to find him.

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After the events of Blackdog, it takes Moth and Mikki a year to come to Marakand, though the journey should not be so long as all that, not by any means. Later, she blames Mikki’s having suffered heatstroke in the Salt Desert — not the most hospitable environment for a demon who must wear the shape of a grizzly by day. But they could have gone around. On another occasion, they do. Once in Marakand, she fails to seek out her enemy right away, and when she does do so, she falls into a trap, not an ambush of superior force or wizardry, but something subtle, a seduction — of forgetting, of withdrawal.

Moth does not want to engage — with her enemies, with the wrongs she has done in the past, with the world. Only fear of harm coming to Mikki — the threat made against him by the Old Great Gods — drives her out of her northern retreat. Only that, not the great wrongs some of the other devils are perpetrating against the folk and the gods of the earth, not any sense of honour in keeping the bargain she made in return for the sword Lakkariss, keeps her hunting. Moth simply wants to hide, to stop doing, and be quiet somewhere, and but for Mikki, to be alone. It takes anger, encounters with specific injustices, threats to individuals, to stir her, wake her into action.

It took me a while, working my way through the stories, to realize that Moth’s constant drift towards withdrawal from the action could be read as something — had maybe been written as something — not so much about depression as such, as just showing the hazy borderland of it, a beginning slide that might never be a total falling downwards into that pit, but which would always have that as its possible outcome. It might be capable of being read as her way of dealing with that tendency towards something we’d now call depression — black bile, Yeh-Lin diagnoses it as in The Last Road, which is to say, melancholy — or with the psychological damage she’d done herself by her actions in the wars of the seven devils, in the history lying in the past of these stories. And it might not, in the longer term, be successful. Either way, it needed to be a journey, not its endpoint.

Withdrawal from the world of action certainly isn’t a useful function in a fictional protagonist. Running away serves a purpose — rest, regroup, restore, heal — but in fiction, that character then needs to re-emerge. Moth just keeps trying to hide. By Gods of Nabban, Moth has flown away from the centre of action altogether. There’s a glimpse of her wandering among a forest of giant trees on an unknown shore. (For the curious, it’s the far eastern coast of the continent of which Pirakul, east of Nabban, is the westernmost land.) She plays no part in anything going on, despite the great threat to Nabban, its new god, and the folk of that land, only returning for the epilogue some years later.

In The Last Road, Moth has taken that withdrawal to new extremes. My series hero has been trying to turn herself into a glacier, I said, with lots of muttering about what was I going to do with her now. But she wouldn’t have been Moth, she wouldn’t have been consistent, if after the end of Gods of Nabban she’d said, Sorry I missed the big fight, why don’t I go round up any remaining devils for you. (Aside from the awkwardness of her — possible — friend, and Ghu’s ally and vassal Yeh-Lin Dotemon being one of those devils Moth was sworn to destroy …) It was going to take more than Ghu worrying about a potential future problem with a devil, whom he and Ahjvar had apparently dealt with for the time being, to bring Moth to the point of admitting that in her grey passivity she was struggling with something, and needed to find her way through it.

That had to be a crucial part of the new story — Moth acknowledging her withdrawal from matters towards which she bore some responsibility, and beginning, at last, to act to make a real change rather than merely reacting as expected when provoked. (That, incidentally, is not to say that anyone can or should try to struggle through their grey sloughs on their own; as Ahjvar finds, help is most often needed if one is not to drown.) This time, Moth could not afford to merely wander into the crisis and absent herself at once from its aftermath.

To the storyteller, Moth’s tendency to take herself out of huge swaths of the action in the previous books was a very valuable trait. It freed up room for other stories to unfold and other characters to emerge and act. I’d given her the most lethal weapon in this world. It wouldn’t have made a very good or very long story if she’d charged off after dealing with Heuslar and just kept beheading her enemies. I could have thrown something else at her; several different possibilities occur to me — a conscience, a Yeh-Lin determined to find a weapon or an ally great enough stand against her, another rebellion against the Old Great Gods, are only three — but then it would have been a different story.

Moth had been drifting towards the ice within herself for a long time; in The Last Road, I finally realized what a large part of her story that had quietly been all along, and followed that story where it led.

*

K.V. Johansen‘s The Last Road is out tomorrow, published by Pyr Books. The first four novels in the Gods of the Caravan Road series are also published by Pyr Books.

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