Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry

Kagen the Damned Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 10 May 2022)

Series: Kagen the Damned – Book One

Length: 20 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of my favourite unusual thriller writers, the legendary Jonathan Maberry, enters the world of fantasy in a big way with Kagen the Damned, a dark fantasy masterpiece with a brutal heart to it.

I have made no secret of the fact that I am a huge Jonathan Maberry fan.  I got into Maberry’s writings when I chanced upon a copy of his 10th Joe Ledger novel, Deep Silence, a few years ago, which introduced me to both Maberry’s unique writing and his iconic protagonist, the titular Joe Ledger, a badass action hero who saves the world from crazy and dark science creations.  I deeply enjoyed Deep Silence (it was one of my favourite books of 2018) and quickly moved onto his other Joe Ledger books, diving back to the start of the series with Patient Zero, and then working my way through the rest of the awesome entries, such as The Dragon Factory, Code Zero, Predator One and Dogs of War.  I also kept up with his latest releases, including the two entries in the follow-up Rogue Team International series, Rage (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021), and his standalone novel Ink (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020).  I have been very eager to see what awesome novel Maberry releases in 2022, and, luckily for me, that materialised in the form of Kagen the Damned.

Kagen the Damned is an interesting and unique read from Maberry, as it is his debut foray into the fantasy genre.  While many of his other books have had fantasy elements to them (albeit with a horror edge), this is his first pure fantasy fiction novel, as well as the start of his Kagen the Damned series.  Naturally I was rather curious about how Maberry would transition to a new genre, and while I was a tad disappointed that the Rogue Team International series isn’t getting a new entry any time soon, Kagen the Damned ended up pretty high on my most anticipated reads for 2022 list.  After a few weeks of other books getting in the way, I finally got the chance to listen to Kagen the Damned, and it turned out to be quite an impressive novel.

Kagen Vale was once one of the most trusted and revered fighters in the entire Silver Empire.  A scion of the legendary Vale family, who have served the Silver Empire for generations, Kagen was a beloved member of the royal court and so highly regarded that he was entrusted as the guardian of the Seedlings, the Empresses’ children.  That was until the fateful night when, out drinking and whoring, he was drugged and left for dead.  Awakening in a daze, Kagen found himself in the midst of hell as the capital of Silver Empire, Argentium, was besieged by a foe long thought dead, the dread nation of Hakkia, whose dark magic has once again emerged to blot out the world.

Arriving to the palace too late to save anyone, including the Seedlings, Kagen falls into despair at failing his sacred duty and can only watch in horror as the Gods of the Garden, the deities of the Silver Empire, turn their back on him and damning him for all time.  Now with everything and everyone he has ever known lost forever, Kagen the Damned wanders the ruined countryside a broken drunk, dreaming of revenge on the one man responsible for all his ills, the mysterious and feared Witch-king of Hakkia.

However, not everything is as lost as it seems, as shadowy figures across the world being to formulate their plans to repel the Witch-king’s evil.  As two young women embark on a deadly quest to awaken a sleeping, ancient god from beneath the waves, a covenant of resistance attempts to find their own magic to oppose the Witch-king with.  Determining that Kagen may bear the best chance of recovering the tools needed to succeed, they manipulate events to set him on his path to revenge.  However, what price will a doomed man truly pay to get the revenge he so desperately seeks, and will Kagen be ready for the terrible secrets he uncovers along the way?  Only the gods and the damned know for sure!

Well, it is now more apparent than ever that there is no Jonathan Maberry book I will not enjoy to the extreme.  Kagen the Damned is an incredible and very memorable novel from Maberry, who puts the ‘dark’ in dark fantasy, with this barbaric and action-packed journey into hell.  Making use of his trademark style, flair for horror and exceptional character work, Maberry pulls together a deeply addictive and extremely exciting story that I fell in love with very, very quickly.  This was another easy five star read for me, and I loved every single second I spent reading it.

Maberry once again blew me away with an outstanding and high-action narrative, and I quickly got very attached to Kagen the Damned.  This book has an extremely memorable start to it, showing the bloody fall of Argentium from the perspective of Kagen, who awakens from a drunken haze to find a vast army in his supposedly impenetrable city, destroying and killing everything they see.  This was a very compelling and brutal start the novel, and its one that I quite enjoyed, especially as you see just how dangerous the enemies are and the chaos they have unleashed.  Maberry does a great job of setting up multiple key storylines, settings and characters in this early section, and while the focus is primarily on Kagen, you get some interesting insights into other figures that will impact the rest of the book.  The entire first part of the book is very distinctive and really showcases how dark this novel is going to get, especially when it comes to the character of Kagen and the fate of the royal children.  This whole first section ends on a brilliant note, with Kagen left broken and damned, while the once great Silver Empire, which you only saw glimpses of, is destroyed and replaced with a new world order.

Following this epic start, the narrative slows down a little, as Maberry works to set up some alternate storylines and characters, while as taking the time to do some compelling and extended word building.  Set in the direct aftermath of the opening sequence, the story primarily splits into three different streams at this point, with the main one following a despondent Kagen as he traverses the former Silver Empire, lost in grief and drink.  At the same time, two separate storylines tell some great connected narratives, with one following two young women as they journey off into the unknown, while the rest focuses on the Hakkian takeover back in Argentium.  This focus on the Hakkians and their plans, as told by the Witch-king’s advisors, as well as a resistance group, is very awesome, and it was fascinating to see some impressive political intrigue going on behind the scenes as the antagonists work to consolidate power through various methods.  While the rest of the narrative continues in a straight line, the story around Kagen slowly adapts as he meets some new friends and begins his mission of revenge as planned, with some detours.

This leads up to the excellent final part of the book, which I powered through extremely quickly to see how everything ended.  All three major storylines are reaching there climax here, and they start to blend a lot more closely, especially the ones focusing on Kagen and the Hakkians.  Everything leads up to a highly anticipated confrontation that sees Kagen finally face his enemies, and it is just as epic as I was hoping.  There is a ton of action, tragedy, twists and revelations here, as many of the plot elements and storylines come full circle.  I loved the various reveals that happen here, and most have been set up really well throughout the extended course of the narrative.  I really should have seen the identity of the Witch-king coming, but it was the right choice by Maberry, which leaves some big questions open for the future.  Everyone will come away from Kagen the Damned extremely satisfied, as Maberry leaves everyone on a brilliant note, that ensures that readers will definitely come back for more.  This is an outstanding and deeply addictive narrative that is guaranteed to grab your attention early one and refuse to let go.

I really enjoyed how well Kagen the Damned was written, as Maberry brought his unique style to bear to help create an outstanding story.  In many ways, this novel proved to be essentially one of Maberry’s thrillers set in a fantasy universe.  Indeed, there were a lot of similarities in the style, the structure of the chapter, the pacing and even the use of familiar horror elements that I have previously seen and loved in the Joe Ledger books and I think this cool style worked well to tell an intense fantasy narrative.  As such, Kagen the Damned is a swift and well-structured book that pushes the story along at a swift pace, while also taking the time to build up the universe and the multitude of characters.  Maberry utilises a great range of story elements throughout this novel, and the readers are treated with a fantastic blend of action, intrigue, dark, over-the-top moments, horror, despair and humour, as the characters experience all manner of devastating trials and oppositions.

I also have a lot of love for the way that the author sets up the story and showcases the elaborate events that are occurring.  Maberry makes excellent use of a huge number of shorter, focused chapters told from a variety of viewpoints.  These briefer chapters really increase the pace and intensity of the book, and I deeply appreciated how the narrative quickly jumped across the various characters.  The interplay between the three central storylines, which are primarily anchored around Kagen, is extremely good, and I loved seeing the characters react to some of the same events or actions of their fellow cast members.  These storylines are also joined by a series of interludes that show the various impacts that the Hakkian invasion has on the wider world, especially those attuned to magic.  These interludes are usually very fascinating, and they are often used to introduce some minor supporting characters in a fun and unique way.  I loved the complexity that these interludes usually have, and the often self-contained stories are well structured and always feature a distinctive or chilling conclusion.  Maberry uses these interludes cleverly, often inserting them between major or extremely powerful chapters to help relieve tension, or to remind the reader of the wider stakes or events occurring around the main story.  I definitely enjoyed this larger look at the world that Maberry provided through them, and it was an outstanding part of Kagen the Damned’s story.

One of the major highlights of the writing in Kagen the Damned is the intricately described and fast-paced action, which is a major hallmark of Maberry’s writing style.  Maberry has always excelled at writing brutal fight scenes in a way that paints a vivid mental picture for the reader, and this was once again the case for Kagen the Damned.  The many, many action and fight sequences are brought to life in exquisite and bloody detail, and the reader is easily able to imagine every strike and slice as they happen.  This makes the action sequences really pop, and they were a particularly awesome highlight of this great book.  This focus on action and combat was really effective in this fantasy novel, and it was very cool to see Maberry bring his knowledge of combat and the accompanying writing skill to bear on large scale battles between armed and armoured fighters, while magic and gods blow stuff away around them.  There are some really great fight scenes loaded throughout this book, and I loved every skirmish, battle and duel that was featured within it.

While I did really love the action and brutal combat sequences within Kagen the Damned, I probably should add a warning about how dark and gruesome it can get in places.  Maberry’s writing style has always relied on over-the-top violence, cruelty and brutality to a degree, and this was once again the case in Kagen the Damned, which not only featured a ton of killing but also gruesome scenes of torture, corpse desecration and depictions of sexual violence.  While I think that these ultra-violent moments do work to showcase just how dark and savage the new world order is, they are often a bit hard to witness.  I will note that Maberry did take the time to discuss the emotional and social impacts of the various acts of sexual violence in the book, rather than just including them for gratuitous effect.  There are also some great scenes where the protagonist calls out and belittles several characters willing to commit such acts, before delivering his own violent justice, and I think that the author did his best to show have damaging it can be in his own way.  However, readers should probably be aware that these scenes exist, as people might find them to be a bit shocking.

I was also a major fan of the cool new fantasy universe that Maberry cooked up with Kagen the Damned, mainly because it is such a distinctive creation of the author.  Set on a giant continent made up of various nations, this is an impressive and compelling world, filled with a unique history, gods, people and settings.  The author does a great job of swiftly introducing this world and some of the key parts of its history in the early parts of the book, mainly so that readers can be a little more shocked at the early events and full appreciate the destruction and change that the Hakkian nation brings with it.  Maberry is clearly emulating some classic fantasy novels and settings throughout Kagen the Damned, and I loved seeing this bold new world that he has created.  There are some unique and cool elements featured within, and I liked how there are certain shades of grey shown when it comes to the morality and righteousness of the various factions.  Maberry also takes the time to highlight the changes that are coming to the world, thanks to the return of the Hakkian Witch-king, and the slow and steady resurgence of magic and the death of a certain pantheon of gods, are highlighted really well, both in the main story and the interlude chapters.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of this new world is the horror elements that Maberry worked into the plot.  I really should not have been surprised at the strong Lovecraftian elements that featured, as the author has used them strongly in some of his previous books.  However, it is even more explicit here in Kagen the Damned, with several notable Elder Gods playing key roles in the plot and even appearing in some epic scenes.  While I am not personally a fan of Lovecraft, I did quite like how Maberry utilised these elements throughout this book, and they gave parts of the book a darker and more eldritch quality that I quite enjoyed.  This, and certain discussions about other worlds and alternate realities, potentially links this series to some of Maberry’s existing works, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some form of crossover in the future, although it would have to be handled well.  I had a great time exploring this new fantasy world in Kagen the Damned, and I look forward to seeing what other surprises and dark gods appear in future entries of this series.

I also must highlight the incredible character work featured with Kagen the Damned, as Maberry went all out to create an excellent and unique cast of characters, whom the excellent narrative revolves around.  There are some amazing characters featured within this novel, and the author works hard to feature all of them in some impressive roles.  I had a lot of fun with the huge cast of Kagen the Damned, and there are deep and emotional figures featured here.

The most prominent and intriguing character is the titular Kagen, who takes on the moniker of Kagen the Damned.  Maberry really does a number on his central protagonist early on, as Kagen awakens from a drunken haze to find that everything he cared about and held dear had been lost while he slept.  Despite his best efforts to redeem himself in the battle that follows, he still fails miserably, and manages to escape the conquered capital in a fractured haze.  Broken, dazed and emotionally destroyed, Kagen becomes even more despondent when he sees his gods in the sky turn their back on him due to his failure to maintain his sacred oaths, which convinces him that he is damned.  Naturally, these events leave him severely emotionally damaged, and he spends most of the book trying to come to terms with his failure while also trying to find some way to get revenge on the Witch-king for all he has done.  A large amount of the book is dedicated to Kagen falling into despair, and Maberry presents a realistic depiction of a man who has lost everything and who is barely able to survive, relying heavily on drink and violence to get through his days.  While Kagen is eventually able to throw off much of this despair, it is still lurking within him, and he is often shown living in regret at his failure, even though no one else blames him as much as he does.  Kagen working through these complex feelings of failure results in much of the novels emotional strength, and Kagen serves as a moving and powerful heart for the entire novel.

While I did deeply enjoy this intriguing central character and his rough and emotional journey through this book, it is hard not to notice some similarities between Kagen and another one of Maberry’s protagonists from another series.  Kagen is in many ways a fantasy version of Joe Ledger, with similarities including a propensity for violence, extreme skill with knives (technically short-swords in Kagen’s case), and even a similar sense of humour during some of the lighter moments of the books.  There is also the same high level of mental damage brought on by extreme trauma, with both characters often seeking revenge against the people who wronged them and those they loved.  Despite these similarities, I still really appreciated Kagen as a protagonist, and I felt that some of his additional elements, such as his complex familiar bonds and strong sense of failure, did set him apart in some key ways.  No matter what, Kagen is a pretty awesome character to follow, and I loved seeing him continue to go through all his dark moments to keep going.

Aside from Kagen, there are several other amazing characters featured in this novel, all of whom have some outstanding storylines around them.  Two of the most prominent are Ryssa and Miri, who were in Argentium when the Hakkians invade.  Both junior members of the Silver Empire’s clergy, the two women initially appear to be primarily concerned with surviving the invasion.  However, it soon becomes apparent that Miri, whose knowledge of the gods and creatures of this world are far greater than they should be, has a different agenda.  Taking Ryssa with her on a big journey to a remote island nation, Miri soon engages in a plot to save the world her way.  Ryssa and Miri make up a fun combination that Maberry weaves some interesting storylines around.  While these characters aren’t explored as deeply as Kagen, you still get a great sense of who they are, particularly Ryssa, who is the primary point-of-view character between them.  Their entire storyline is covered in mystery and uncertainty as Ryssa is left in the dark about what is coming her way.  I liked the religious world-building that went into this character storyline, and there are some excellent moments in it loaded with tragedy and despair.  Even with their storyline being mostly separated from the rest of the characters, and it was a little predictable that Maberry would turn them into a lesbian couple, they had a compelling relationship and I felt that they added a lot to the narrative.

I also had a great deal of fun with the primary Hakkian characters featured in Kagen the Damned.  While they are ostensibly the antagonists of the book, Maberry takes the time to really establish the main four characters and presents them as a lot more complex and even sympathetic in places.  The main Hakkian character is their leader, the Witch-king, a character shrouded in mystery for most of the book.  A previously unknown figure, the Witch-king uses his magic to defeat the entire Silver Empire in a night and then spends the rest of the book trying to set himself up as the legitimate ruler of the land while also advancing the position of his brutal god.  I loved the way that Maberry kept the details about the Witch-king’s past and identity hidden for most of the narrative, although there is some great foreshadowing of his identity scattered throughout the novel.  The Witch-king cuts a fantastic and menacing figure for most of the book, and it was intriguing to see him present himself as a fair and loving ruler, while simultaneously exuding an aura of menace and dark magic.  It was pretty hilarious to see him terrify his key advisors for much of the book, and I loved all the hints about his true objectives.  An overall excellent central antagonist, I look forward to getting more details about him and his history in the rest of the series, especially after the revelations at the end of this book.

The other three key Hakkian characters are the Witch-king’s advisors, the chamberlain Lord Nespar, necromancer Lady Kestral, and newcomer Jakob.  Nespar and Kestral are fantastic characters who spend most of the book administrating the Witch-king’s will, running his empire, hunting for Kagen, and setting up the upcoming coronation of the Witch-king to become emperor.  While they are initially shown to be quite dangerous and evil, mainly due to their role in destroying the Silver Empire and Kestral’s disturbing magic, you eventually see that there is a lot more to them.  In particular, you see that they are actually extremely terrified of the Witch-king and are desperately obeying his will in order to survive.  You actually end up feeling a bit sympathetic for the pair of them, even after you see Kestral tear a corpse apart for a ritual, and I enjoyed the intrigue and politics they got involved with to rule the new empire.  The other character is Jakob, a Silver Empire historian who is drafted into the Witch-king service as his minister for propaganda.  Rechristened as Jakob Ravensmere, he becomes fully compliant in the Hakkian takeover and proves to be a very competent advisor and political mind while also working to rewrite history to increase the legitimacy of the Witch-king.  It was extremely fascinating to see Jakob discussing the control given by those who control history and propaganda, and I really enjoyed his role in the new empire.  It was also fun to see his rather quick slide towards the dark side as he fully embraces the Hakkian lifestyle and even starts to develop a taste for a power.  I always love seeing Maberry’s narrative unfold from the antagonist’s point of view, and this worked out extremely well again in Kagen the Damned.

The final characters I need to highlight are some of the excellent supporting cast surrounding Kagen.  Kagen has two excellent companions who work with him throughout the book, Tuke and Filia.  Tuke is a giant professional thief who recruits Kagen for a job that will help an anti-Hakkian resistance movement.  Tuke serves as the comic relief for much of the book, and I loved the outstanding chemistry he had with Kagen.  The two play off each other extremely well, and their excellent camaraderie and humour were pretty fun to see.  Not only does Tuke have some of the best lines (and the funniest curses) in the book, but he also serves as an emotional sounding board to Kagen, helping him get better after all the tragedy he experienced.  Filia is a strong-willed warrior and former associate of Kagen who finds herself dragged into the chaos around the war and Kagen’s wild adventures.  Filia’s no-nonsense attitude and sarcasm are a great counterpart to the other characters in Kagen the Damned, and I especially liked it when it combined with the humour of Kagen and Tuke.  These characters, and more, really enhanced the overall quality of this impressive narrative, and I loved seeing their powerful storylines unfold in some excellent and enjoyable ways.

There was no way that I was going to check out the new Jonathan Maberry novel in any format other than audiobook.  I have had some outstanding experiences with Maberry’s audiobooks over the years, and all of them have been deeply impressive and extremely enjoyable.  This again proved to be the case with Kagen the Damned, as I had an outstanding time having this dark epic read out to me, especially as it really helped me to absorb all the details of the characters and the impressive new universe.  With a runtime of just under 21 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook to get through, but it is well worth the time investment, especially as it delivers the story in such an awesome way.

Easily the best thing about this audiobook is the outstanding narration from the very, very awesome Ray Porter.  Porter, who is one of my favourite audiobook narrators, who has previously narrated Maberry’s books, as well as contributing his voice to other works like The Apollo Murders and The Sandman audio adaptation.  As such, the moment I heard that Porter was also going to narrate Kagen the Damned, I knew that I had to get this audiobook.  Porter has an amazing ability to move the story along, and his voice is perfect for all the intense action, world-building and intrigue Maberry features in his novels.  I love the way that Porter dives into the various characters featured in the books, with every single person getting their own distinctive voice, while Porter also effortlessly emotes all their emotion to the listener.  This includes a very sinister voice that Porter saves for when the villains are talking or some incredibly dark moments are happening, and having him use variations of this voice to highlight just how brutal a moment is being, is always a great experience.  It also works well when the characters start speaking in the languages associated with the Elder Gods, and the resultant ceremonies and spells are quite spooky to hear in Porter’s voice.

Porter also did a particularly good job at inhabiting the voice of Maberry’s central protagonist, Kagen, and you get a real sense of who he is and the intense pain he is feeling throughout the book.  While the voice Porter uses from Kagen is a little like that of Joe Ledger from Maberry’s other audiobooks (a side effect of Porter ensuring that the main protagonist’s voice matches the tone he uses for basic narration), Porter does add a little more of a growl to it here, which helped to a degree.  This was another incredible performance from Porter, and I am so very glad that they got him back to narrate Maberry’s new series.  I cannot emphasise how outstanding the Kagen the Damned audiobook turned out to be (although I did feature it in my recent best audiobooks from the first half of 2022 list before I’d even finished it), and this is the absolute best way to enjoy Kagen the Damned.

Well, after rabbiting on for nearly seven pages, I think it is exceedingly obvious that I loved Kagen the Damned.  Jonathan Maberry’s latest novel was extremely compelling and deeply exciting, and I was really impressive with the author’s jump to the fantasy genre.  Featuring a clever, complex, and action-packed narrative loaded with destruction, thrilling revenge and some great, damaged characters, Kagen the Damned was an outstanding read and its one that I absolutely flew through.  Kagen the Damned is easily one of the top books of 2022 and this is a favourite new series for me.  I am extremely excited to see where the Kagen the Damned series will go in the future, and the next book, Son of the Poison Rose, is out in a few months’ time, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

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8 thoughts on “Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry

  1. gadlaw

    Unpleasantly graphic would be my takeaway. I wanted to like it, I wanted to enjoy the adventures of a tortured protagonist but like a lot of books and movies these days the idea of creating imagery and narrations that goes beyond the pale seems to be necessary for the shock value or to show the ‘seriousness’ or over the top nature of it. I’m not here for that. It’s like 90 percent is great. That’s what bums me out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it was a bit over-the-top in places, although I still really enjoyed it. I don’t personally mind ultra-violence in some books, as long as it has a purpose, and I think that Maberry used it ok, although a few scenes did go too far and I can see why some readers wouldn’t like it. Still, the great narrative and powerful character work more than made up for this, and I had a brilliant time with it.

      Like

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