Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 10 January 2023)
Series: Kagen the Damned – Book Two
Length: 25 hours and 55 minutes
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
One of my favourite authors, Jonathan Maberry, returns to his intriguing fantasy world in a big way with the second Kagen the Damned novel, Son of the Poison Rose.
Readers familiar with my blog will know I am a massive Jonathan Maberry fan, and the path to my current obsession with his work is well documented throughout The Unseen Library. I started off by reading his fantastic 2018 novel, Deep Silence, quite early in my blogging career, and this ended up getting me into the rest of his exceptional Joe Ledger series, including The Dragon Factory, The King of Plagues, Predator One and Dogs of War. I have also had a great time reading his sequel Rogue Team International series, which featured the epic books Rage (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021), as well as the fun standalone novel Ink (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020). Needless to say, I have deeply enjoyed his cool books, and this only increased when he made his impact into the fantasy fiction world last year with Kagen the Damned.
Kagen the Damned was an amazing and exceptional dark fantasy novel that took the reader on a wild ride. Set in a brutal fantasy world of Maberry’s own invention, Kagen the Damned followed the titular character of Kagen Vale, a highly regarded hero and palace guard of the Silver Empire who loses everything in a single night when the armies of the dread nation Hakkia invade with dark magic, led by the powerful and deadly Witch-king. Forced to watch his parents, his empress, and the royal children he was sworn to protect die terrible deaths, a haunted Kagen flees, only to be further destroyed when he beholds his gods turning their back on him, damming him for his failure. Now known as The Damned, Kagen travels the world in a daze before finally regaining his senses and launching an attack on the Witch-king at his coronation. However, this reveals secrets that shock Kagen further and spelling doom for the entire world. I had an epic time reading Kagen the Damned last year, and it ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2022. Between this and the cool Kagen the Damned novella I Say Your Name in the Dark Nights, I have been eagerly awaiting a second novel and I was very excited when I heard that Son of the Poison Rose was coming out. Son of the Poison Rose was one of my most anticipated books of 2023 and I finally managed to read it a short while ago and it was everything I hoped it would be and more.
“There is blood on the ground between us!”
Following his failed assassination attempt on the Witch-king of Hakkia, Kagen Vale, better known as Kagen the Damned, is once again the run with his companions, Tuke Brakson and Filia alden-Bok, attempting to find safety and come up with a new strategy of survival and revenge. While their plan to kill the Witch-king failed, their attack stopped the return of the Hakkian God, Hastur, while also opening up the possibility of war, as the Witch-king’s fellow monarchs see the Hakkians as vulnerable. However, Kagen also uncovered the terrible secret that the Witch-king is his older brother Herepath, who has turned his back on everything he once believed in to unleash great evil upon the world.
Wandering the wilderness, Kagen, Tuke and Filia attempt to come up with a new way to strike back against the Hakkian forces. Their journey eventually leads them to the north of the continent, where they attempt to recruit an army of nationless-rogues, mercenaries and fighters to their cause. But force of arms alone will not be enough to stop the Witch-king, instead Kagen and his allies will need magic. But with magic long banned within the Silver Empire, only the Hakkians have any real knowledge of the mystic arts. To that end, Kagen turns to former nun turned spymistress, Mother Frey, who sends Kagen on a deadly mission to a long lost city in a dangerous jungle in the hopes of recovering ancient books of dark magic.
However, the Witch-king is far from idle while Kagen is working against him. With his army spread thin and the nations of the former Silver Empire all gearing up for war, the future looks grim for the usurper and his advisors. But with new dark allies arriving every day, called to his side by magic, the Witch-king plans to unleash a magical plague, one that will turn his enemies into a ravenous, unthinking horde. With such power at the Witch-king’s command, will Kagen’s quest reveal something powerful enough to defeat him? And even if he does, will Kagen be able to fight his own brother?
Wow, wow, wow, what an epic and exceptional book! Maberry can really do no wrong when it comes to his writing and this impressive sequel really hammers home what a talented author he is. Masterfully expanding on the narrative set up in the first book, Son of the Poison Rose contains Maberry’s trademark blend of intensity, awesome action, complex characters, and dark world building that I love so much. I absolutely powered through this lengthy novel, and it earns Maberry another easy five-star rating from me as I loved every single second I spent with it.
Maberry continues his sprawling and dark narrative in Son of the Poison Rose, as this book takes the reader in some great and captivating new directions. Taking place in the explosive aftermath of Kagen the Damned, Son of the Poison Rose starts off in a big and action-packed way as Kagen and his allies find themselves being hunted by everything the Witch-king can throw at them. Maberry quickly establishes his usual practice of featuring a huge number of different perspectives to showcase not only the adventures of the protagonists, but also the actions and schemes of the antagonists and the impacts that their machinations have throughout the world. The main story of Kagen is pretty epic as it sees the protagonist and his friends struggling through new lands in the search of allies and magic. While this results in some great scenes for Kagen in the first two thirds of the book, including a great haunted house sequence, his story here feels a little meandering at times without too much progress being made. However, this is more than made up from the various alternate perspectives and worldbuilding that occurs in the same period. It is so damn fascinating and entertaining to see the various dark and often horrifying plots of the antagonists come into effect as they plot for war. These storylines blend spy thriller and dark fantasy elements together really well and you are drawn into these storylines, especially as Maberry takes the opportunity to strengthen the followers of the antagonists in some big ways. The simultaneous build-up of other complex supporting characters, as well as the many examinations of various corners of Maberry’s new fantasy world adds to the impressive tapestry of the first two thirds of the story, and I was pretty damn hooked during this part of the book.
Maberry ramps up the intensity in the final third of the book as the various intriguing storylines he set up in the start of the novel really come to fruition. This is headlined by Kagen and his allies travelling into a dangerous jungle nation to find a legendary ancient city where magical texts are hidden. While I was initially concerned this part of Kagen’s story was going to be rushed, it ended up being very well written and awesome, as they encounter all manner of evils out in the jungle. This final third of the book was again firmly enhanced by the continued dive back to the antagonists, where you see their evil plot to fill the jungle with zombies and other deadly creatures to kill Kagen and his comrades. This results in an epic series of battles which keep you on the edge of your seat, as you know Maberry will not hesitate to kill off his characters. The author chucks in several massive revelations around this part of the book, including finally showing the motivation behind the Witch-king’s actions, and the entire narrative ends on a big note while also expertly setting the stage for even more chaos in the following novel. This ended up being a particularly epic story and I was firmly hooked the entire way through.
Those who are familiar with Mabbery’s novels will know that the author has a very distinctive style which has worked wonders in his many thriller novels. Maberry successfully transported this style across to the fantasy genre last year with Kagen the Damned, and I felt it really enhanced his already impressive story. Naturally he continues it in Son of the Poison Rose and it is still really effective at conveying the vast scope of his tale. The main basis for his style is the utilisation of a vast number of shorter perspective chapters which showcase events from multiple characters across the narrative. This results in a vast and complex story that not only allows the reader to see the adventures of the protagonist but also highlight the other players throughout the realm, including the antagonist, his court, the members of the resistance, and even several kings and rulers from unaligned nations who are making plans for war. Maberry further expands out the plot by including a series of intriguing, often standalone interludes, which showcase smaller, self-contained stories within the wider universe. These interludes are usually pretty cool, both by themselves and as extensions of the larger story, and I love how inventive and dark Maberry can be at times. This mass of perspectives really helps to create an extensive and complex plot that has so many different aspects to it. Seeing the protagonist and antagonist constantly reacting to the actions of each other, as well as other figures in the book, really ups the stakes and intensifies the plot, and I loved how Maberry gave this fantasy novel a strong thriller feel, especially with the continues focuses on politics, espionage and revenge.
Now, one thing about Maberry’s writing style that is not going to appeal to everyone is just how dark and disturbing the author makes the story. Maberry is a particularly over-the-top writer at times, as he really does not hold back on the gore, violence and depravity, with the characters witnessing or causing all manner of mayhem or gruesome acts. While this excessive violence and brutality fits the dark fantasy realm that Maberry has created, particularly as it highlights just how evil the antagonist and his legions can be, it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The torture, abuse and sadism of many scenes can be a bit much at times, and anyone that dislikes that sort of inclusion is probably best served to avoid this series. However, for those that remain, I will point out that Maberry’s attention to bloody detail does ensure that the action sequences are extremely awesome. The author has a gift for bringing the brutality and intensity of the battlefield to life in some truly glorious scenes, and you will be enthralled by every swing of the dagger or sword that he writes. These action scenes are a beautiful, if bloody, highlight of this book, and the overall excessiveness of some of the scenes, especially when focusing on an over-the-top villain really plays into the wider narrative and setting.
I am still in love with the cool new dark fantasy world that Maberry created in Kagen the Damned, especially as the author took his time to populate with evil creatures, Lovecraftian gods and so much damn despair. His first book served as a brilliant introduction to the various intriguing nations, and I deeply appreciated the intricate depictions of the Hakkian invasion, as well as the subtle and slow reintroduction of magic into this world. Maberry continues to build up this world in several ways throughout Son of the Poison Rose, which results in some amazing story elements. The focus on several of the other realms not seen in the first book is pretty interesting, as is the examination of the complex politics of the land as these now independent nations contemplate war with Hakkia after the concluding events of Kagen the Damned. This builds up several great storylines as these rebelling nations and the Witch-king’s court plot different strategies to win any future wars. Maberry also has a lot of fun exploring several new lands that were only hinted at in the previous books, and the protagonists soon end up in several unique and deadly landscapes, including cursed snowscapes with mysterious creatures, lethal jungles, and massive ruined cities dedicated to overthrown gods. All of these locations are expertly introduced and described by Maberry, who uses them to his full advantage to increase tension and ensure that all the inevitable battles have a compelling new edge to them.
Another excellent thing that Maberry continues to do in Son of the Poison Rose is show how magic is slowly returning to the land due to the machinations of the Witch-king. Thanks to several great chapters and interludes, you get to see the full horror as old magical creatures re-emerge, including the always reliable zombie, which plays very heavily into the plot. Maberry is no stranger when it comes to zombies, having featured them in several books before (Patient Zero and Code Zero for example) and he uses to them to great effect here, both as political tools for the antagonist, and as rabid obstacles for the protagonists. Other awesome features include the unstoppable, demonically powered, Razor Knight, which has a great showing at the end of the book, and it will be interesting to see how that, as well as some of the other magic unleashed in Son of the Poison Rose, come into effect in the rest of the series. I also really appreciated how Maberry kept including a few references to his other series throughout Son of the Poison Rose, which is always a lot of fun for his established fans. The hints of connection between this world and the settings of other books from Maberry is noticeable and fun without being too mysterious for new readers. I especially loved the inclusion of a fantastic new villainous character who readers of the Joe Ledger books will be well familiar with under a different name, which I thought was an awesome touch for those who have read his other books. I deeply enjoyed the impressive world building that Maberry did in Son of the Poison Rose, and I look forward to seeing how else he expands it in the rest of the series.
As always, one of the absolute best parts of Son of the Poison Rose were the exceptional, complex, and well-written characters that Maberry has expertly crafted together. This includes a great combination of established figures from the first book, as well as a good collection of new characters who add some outstanding original spice to his second book. Thanks to huge number of perspective chapters, the Kagen the Damned series features a pretty massive cast of damaged or sinister figures that Maberry uses to full effect to tell an elaborate overarching narrative.
Unsurprisingly, most of the focus of the book falls on series titular character, Kagen Vale, better known as Kagen the Damned. Kagen had an outstanding introduction in the first book, where you see him lose everything, including his gods, in a single night, which drives him to great despair. While he has managed to mostly recover from this thanks to his friends, he is still haunted by that dark night, especially after learning the truth about who the Witch-king is, as well as the identity of his heirs. Driven by even further guilt, confusion, and anger towards his brother and his treachery, Kagen continues his impressive and emotionally rich journey in Son of the Poison Rose, and I had an outstanding time along the ride with him. Maberry writes Kagen in an outstanding way throughout this book, and you really feel his pain and continued anger as he tries to deal with everything that has happened to him. While he does bear some noticeable similarities to Maberry’s other major protagonist, Joe Ledger, especially when it comes to lethal prowess and severe psychological damage, I think that the author does enough to set Kagen apart, especially as his painful motivating event is a lot more raw and personal, resulting in some emotionally charged sequences.
Aside from Kagen, Maberry sets up a great supporting cast who add a lot to the main storyline while also introducing their own intriguing character moments. It was great to see the return of Kagen’s main associates, Tuke and Filia, who continue to follow him into hell. These three characters have great chemistry together and they form an impressive emotional centre to the story, especially as Tuke and Filia serve as Kagen’s conscience and voice of reason. I also liked the return of Mother Frey, the clever spy mistress who is attempting to control the resistance against the Hakkians. Her insights into the world and its political players often expands the intrigue of the story and she serves as a compelling figure in the plot. I did find it interesting that one of the major figures from the first book, Ryssa, barely appeared in this novel after her fantastic storyline in Kagen the Damned. However, her few appearances seem to hint at some sinister things in the future, and I look forward to seeing what Maberry organises with that. Some of the more complicated and disturbing scenes of Son of the Poison Rose revolve around the captured Alleyn and Desalyn/Gavran and Foscor, the royal twins who were captured during the invasion, psychologically broken down, and forcibly given new identities. These two mentally mutilated children spend the entire book trying to retain and regain their memories in some pretty dark scenes and thanks to their affliction, they run the gauntlet from sweet and damaged, to homicidal maniacs. I felt that Maberry really showcased the twins’ mental state perfectly, and their dark storyline was an excellent addition to the plot.
However, to my mind, some of the best characters in Son of the Poison Rose are the villains, who add an entertaining and impressively sinister edge to the book, while also expanding out the political intrigue aspects of the plot. These complex antagonists are led by the evil and destructive Witch-king, who was revealed to be Kagen’s long lost brother Herepath. Empowered by dark magic, vengeance, and a need to keep his true identity hidden, the Witch-king continues his mission to kill Kagen and ensure that and opposition to this power is utterly destroyed. The Witch-king proves to be a particularly malevolent figure throughout Son of the Poison Rose, even after his motivations are revealed to the reader, and he is the perfect foil to Kagen and his companions.
The Witch-king is backed up by a court of loyal, terrified advisors, each of whom are dedicated to the Witch-king’s plans, while also trying to stay alive and gather their own power. This includes the fantastic trio of Lord Nespar, Lady Kestral and Jakob Ravensmere, each of whom have their own reasons for serving the Witch-king, and who each suffer for it in different ways, especially Kestral. Nespar and Ravensmere deeply enhance the political thriller focus of Son of the Poison Rose, as their analysis, plotting and attempts to keep the Hakkians strong on behalf of their master results in some fantastic and powerful moments. I also must call out the mysterious new evils that join the Witch-king’s side during Son of the Poison Rose, especially as many bring their own form of magic and despair with them. The highlight of these new characters is the fantastic and devilish Prince of Games, a mysterious figure who comes to the Witch-king’s side to give advice, counsel and chaos. The Prince of Games really stood out to me, not just because of his portrayal in Son of the Poison Rose but because of the great, universe-spanning implications his appearance has, and I cannot wait to see what havoc he creates throughout this series. All of the antagonists are pretty great, and they all bring their own horror and darkness to the story, especially as they all do some pretty terrible and gruesome things to stay in power. Honestly, every character in Son of the Poison Rose is awesome and memorable in their own way, and Maberry once again shows himself to be the master at effectively bringing together a truly complex cast of damaged and misfit figures.
In my opinion, the only way to properly enjoy a Jonathan Maberry novel is to listen to its audiobook, especially if that audiobook is narrated by the legendary Ray Porter. This has been the case for pretty much every Maberry novel I have had the pleasure of reading, including Son of the Poison Rose, and all these epic audiobooks have been something special. Not only do Maberry’s elaborate storylines and settings get the gravitas and exposure that they deserve in this format, but Porter’s narration really amps up the dark nature of the narrative and provides perfect depictions of the characters. Porter, who is easily one of my favourite audiobook narrators, does another exceptional job in Son of the Poison Rose and I absolutely powered through this audiobook thanks to it. His voice really lends itself to every dark and deadly scenario that Maberry envisions in this novel, and the way that he can convey fear, hatred and pure evil with his voice is just amazing. His real talent lies in his ability to bring all Maberry’s complex characters to life in a particularly fitting way. I especially love how he portrays the main protagonist, Kagen Vale, and he really captures every bit of pain, despair and resolve that this battered character contains. Throw in a series of particularly disturbing voices for all the inhuman and horrifying creatures that the characters encounter, and this is a perfect narration that adds so much to my enjoyment of an already epic book. With a run time of nearly 26 hours, Son of the Poison Rose is a particularly long audiobook (it would come in at number 14 on my latest Longest Audiobook I Have Ever Listened To list), but it is well worth the time investment especially once you get caught up in the twisted story. I personally powered through it extremely quickly, as the combination of the amazing writing and impressive narration ensured I was listening to it continuously and loving every damn second of it. As such, I must once again strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone wanting to check out Son of the Poison Rose, and you will not be disappointed if you do as this is easily one of the best audiobooks of 2023.
I could go on for ages about Son of the Poison Rose, as Jonathan Maberry has done another exceptional job with this second Kagen the Damned novel. Featuring an electric and addictive dark fantasy narrative, loaded with carnage, battles, great characters and an elaborate world on the brink of war, Son of the Poison Rose was a joy from start to finish, especially in its audiobook format. This is easily one of the best fantasy books I have read all year and I cannot wait to see how Maberry continues this epic story in the future. A masterful second book in one of the best ongoing dark fantasy series!