Kagen the Damned is the first instalment in a new fantasy series from award-winning author Jonathan Maberry. Although Maberry has an extensive back catalogue in other genres, including comics, nonfiction, and screenwriting which readers may have come across before Kagen the Damned is his first foray into the adult fantasy world. For me, Kagen the Damned was my introduction to Maberry’s writing, and holy smokes, was it a good one.
As the title suggests, we follow the titular Kagen, a captain of the palace guard and sworn protector of the royal children, from when he wakes up hungover in a brothel and onwards through the Hakkian invasion and its aftermath. Maberry’s novel is relentlessly fast-paced for most of Kagen the Damned, which I enjoyed. The story is mostly made up of short chapters which maintain momentum but also give easy pausing points if you have yet to have an extended time to read. If you have the time available, you can clear many chapters and feel you have had a satisfying amount of action. The whole novel could even be read in one or two sittings and feel like a good use of your time. There were about three pages at the start of the novel when I was able to appreciate Maberry’s dark humour before we were thrust into action of the enemy invasion, and then off we ran. However, Maberry still has excellent world-building and weaves in this world’s history, geography, and religion without slowing the narrative down. It gives the reader all the context they need to understand the significance of events but nothing more.
I have seen Kagen the Damned be described as a ‘swords and sorcery’ fantasy. This is true; there are swords, and there is sorcery, but the novel also overlaps other subsections of fantasy, including being well deserving of a place on the grimdark shelf. It is dark, violent, and at times quite graphic. I would say that Kagen the Damned has quite a high violence level, which might not be for everyone. However, I think it is purposeful rather than an attempt to shock a reader. Especially at the start of the novel, I think that Maberry’s level of bleakness is required to show just how traumatic the events that happen are to Kagen and why they are the catalyst for the world-shattering events of both Kagen the Damned and the rest of the series. I also really enjoyed that female characters were given strong roles in the novel, in particular, Kagen’s mother, the ‘Poison Rose’ is a legendary warrior and personal guard to the empress.
Kagen is an engaging protagonist and not the morally ambiguous lead readers might expect from a ‘grimdark’ novel. Instead, he is a good person who has something very, very bad happen to him and then goes through a sort of post-trauma recovery process. He does not immediately bounce back and embark on a quest to change the world. It was fascinating reading to follow this journey and see the impact it has on Kagen as an individual and the broader impact of the events in Maberry’s world. I had a lot of sympathy for Kagen and this process, but it may also come across as whingey and fall short for some readers. If that is the case, I urge you to persevere as that only lasts a relatively short time, and with Maberry’s pacing, you can move past it quite quickly. The minor characters are also well-written and will presumably play more significant roles in later novels. Still, in Kagen the Damned, they were supporting characters and not part of an ensemble cast. They also give most of the lighter elements to the series, such as the touching relationship between Ryssa and Miri or Tuke’s colourful swearing in many languages.
I only have very minor niggles with Kagen the Damned, and overall, I enjoyed my time reading this novel. I am late to the party as the book was first published in May of 2022, but the great thing is that I can immediately start the second novel in the series The Son of the Poison Rose. Kagen ends on a reasonably steep cliff-hanger, and although the brief epilogue offers a bit of closure, I still have many questions I want answers for. Thank you very much to both Jonathan Maberry and the St. Martin’s Press team for sending over a copy to review Kagen the Damned for Grimdark Magazine 4.5/5.