By: Jonathan Maberry
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Publisher: St. Marten’s Press
Kagen the Damned is a gripping, no-holds-barred grimdark fantasy by Jonathan Maberry. Filled with well-developed and some morally gray characters, battles, magic, and violence that are the earmark of this genre, it is an excellent entry into the dark side of fantasy. The story follows the arc of several characters, when, after one horrific night, the city Argentium capital of the Silver Empire, is invaded and all that they know is gone. The main protagonist is Kagen Vale, Guardian of the Royal Seedlings, the children of the Silver Empress. He is unable to protect on them that one fateful night and his failure to do so drives his character arc. The brutality of the invasion is palpable, and Mr. Maberry takes the reader right into the fray as we follow Kagen, desperately trying to get to the palace and save children he loves so much. As the Silver Empire falls, so does Kagen. His grief and despair lead to him to excessive drinking, wandering the Empire, and killing as many of the invading army as he can, all to try and amend for what he perceives is his ultimate failure. As the gods turn their backs on him, he becomes Kagen the Damned. We follow two other main protagonists, nuns Miri and Ryssa, as they avoid the pillaging to leave the city and go back to Miri’s home. This book was a page turner from start to finish. While it is quite violent and graphic, I found this is was necessary to drive the plot forward. Mr, Maberry brilliantly paints a clear, harsh world for us, as we are pulled into the despair of the people at the mercy of the cruelty inflicted upon them.
The characters in this book were excellent. Kagen elicited many responses from me. I could feel his despair and anger at the atrocities he sees from the Hakkians, the invading army led by the Witch King. I could also understand his feelings of failure. However, when he buries himself in bottle after bottle of alcohol, I wanted to yell, “snap out of it!”. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something about it! Kagen is master with blades. Even in a drunken stupor, once he sees a fight his body takes over and he wields his blades and shows no mercy, killing who he must. His mother is the Poison Rose, just as deadly, and her blades tipped with poison. Mr. Maberry’s portrayal of Kagen is perfect. Once a Guardian of the Seedlings, he is reduced to a wreck of a man, drowning in his own self-pity. I love when characters elicit strong responses, even if they are negative. The character is complete. I can feel for him, get angry, and hope he comes to his senses, which is all part of writing a great character like Kagen.
Miri and Ryssa are just as well-developed. Their flight from the city is nerve wracking. Ryssa is young and terrified, knowing what will happen to them if caught by the Hakkians. Miri is her counter. Though just as frightened, she maintains her calm as she leads Ryssa out. She knows she must do so, for if she doesn’t, she will fail to get them to safety. Her rational, clear thinking puts Ryssa at ease, and feels Miri protecting her. They have a beautiful relationship, and clearly, they love each other.
Ah, the Witch King. We don’t know who he is, as his face is covered with a veil. What we do know is that his cruelty knows no bounds. What he bears down on the people of the empire is unspeakable. However, he feels justified in doing so. Magic was outlawed, and the Hakkians possessed great magic. Their magic and religion were suppressed, reducing Hakkia to a small part of the empire. Because of the injustice done to the people of Hakkia, who never stopped practicing magic, the Witch King feels the invasion and everything that happens to the people is justified. Oppression of people is appalling, but it’s hard to feel sorry for them. What they do for justice goes far beyond retribution.
There are so many other characters woven into the tapestry of Kagen the Damned. There are those who stand with the Witch King and those who are loyal to Kagen and the Silver Empire. What is interesting is that Kagen, Miri, and Ryssa never meet. Their paths are different, but no less important. I thought this was a great choice. We get to see the development of Kagen, and Miri and Ryssa, without the other interfering.
The pacing, prose and plot of this book is so well done. It is told in the third person narrative of Kagen, Miri and Ryssa, the Witch King, and several of the other supporting characters in the novel. While the focus will shift between chapters, the writing flows smoothly from one to other. Mr. Maberry ends a point in the character’s story, then shifts to the next character. It is not confusing and the transitions are never abrupt. Instead, it leaves the reader on edge to find out what will happen next to each character. It was truly gripping narrative.
As far as magic, it is clear that the Witch King and Lady Kestral, High Priestess and advisor to the Witch King, both possess powerful magic. When they conquer the Empire, magic returns and Mr. Maberry has glimpses of this magic pop up in some short chapters. Where it was once outlawed, it has been re-born in the new empire. It is present in the people who lived in the Silver Empire, though it was repressed because it was outlawed. Once the Hakkian Empire is established, magic awakens in some of the people. What that magic becomes varies from each character. Small chapters are interspersed in the novel giving a glimpse into how the magic is manifesting. I liked this choice in the narrative. It was not one explosive eruption of magic in the former empire. It is like the unfurling of a sail, which is far more realistic in a place where magic was not allowed to be wielded.
Jonathan MaBerry’s Kagen the Damned is an excellent grimdark fantasy that pulls no punches. It encompasses all the elements of the genre and weaves them into a thrilling, page turning story from the start. Kagen, Miri, Ryssa, and the Witch King are all expertly developed characters. As Kagen, Miri, and Ryssa deal with the horrors of the invasion, the Witch King revels in his atrocities. There is also an amazing cast of supporting characters that weave this story perfectly. It is dark, gritty, violent, and filled with despair. However, through it all, there is the hope that Kagen clings too, to overthrow the Witch King. The development of the characters through the story elicits many different responses. If they were not constructed so well, I wouldn’t care about them, but I did. This is great writing when I can feel what the characters feel and want to know how their stories will unfold. There is also LBGTQ representation, which I feel is important to add diversity to the genre. While some parts can be brutal and at times hard to read, it flows with the narrative. The invading army, though they attack out of revenge for their oppression, we see gruesome acts they commit is no justification. Overall, Kagen the Damned is an excellent book and I highly recommend it for any fan of grimdark fantasy.
Summary (from NetGalley)
Sworn by Oath
Kagen Vale is the trusted and feared captain of the palace guard, charged with protection of the royal children of the Silver Empire. But one night, Kagen is drugged and the entire imperial family is killed, leaving the empire in ruins.
Abandoned by the Gods
Haunted and broken, Kagen is abandoned by his gods and damned forever. He becomes a wanderer, trying to take down as many of his enemies as possible while plotting to assassinate the usurper, the deadly Witch-king of Hakkia. While all around him magic—long banished from the world—returns in strange and terrifying ways.
Fueled by Rage
To exact his vengeance, Kagen must venture into strange lands, battle bizarre and terrifying creatures, and gather allies for a suicide mission into the heart of the Witch-king’s empire.
Kings and gods will fear him.
Kagen the Damned.
My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with and eBook Arc in exchange for an honest review.
Find out more about Jonathan Maberry on his website: https://www.jonathanmaberry.com/
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