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Monday, May 9, 2022

Book review: Kagen The Damned by Jonathan Maberry

 


Book links: Amazon, Goodreads

AUTHOR INFO: JONATHAN MABERRY is a NY Times bestselling suspense novelist, five-time Bram Stoker Award winner, and comic book writer. He is one-third of the very popular and mildly weird Three Guys With Beards podcast. He is a board member of the Horror Writers Association and the president of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers. Jonathan lives in Del Mar, California with his wife, Sara Jo. www.jonathanmaberry.com

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (May 10, 2022) Page count: 560 Cover art:


As a huge fan of Maberry's Joe Ledger series, I was excited to read his fantasy debut. Kagen The Damned opens with the world burning and the Elder Ones beginning to stir.

Kagen Vale wakes up with a massive hangover and learns that the Hakkian army had killed his family and the Empress. Gethon Haklan, the Hakkian Witch-king, has won. No one can resist his dark magic. The usurper prepares for a coronation to gain complete (and official) control of the Empire. Kagen flees certain death but falls into despair and drowns his sorrow in alcohol. Meanwhile, magic seeps into reality and changes everything.

Maberry excels at writing action scenes. But, it turns out he's also a skilled world-builder. I loved how he defined and introduced people's beliefs and then crushed them. I loved how he mixed folkloric elements with the Cthulhu mythos and politics. Readers get a strong sense of a place and its customs, but they don't need to follow the backstory pages. Just the way I like it. On the other hand, enthusiasts of deep worldbuilding will probably feel that the setting lacks depth. Maberry focuses on the plot and characters, giving enough context to understand their circumstances, but he never gets the story bogged down with unnecessary explanations.

The publisher markets Kagen as grimdark. I agree. It's a bleak and brutal story, not without some humor, but gritty and unforgiving overall. Some passages require the reader to have a strong stomach (like a necromancer "reading" entrails). I didn't mind, but here's the thing. Kagen The Damned is a violent pulp read, fast and furious, with fantastic ideas and creepy mythos, but without the nuance that some grimdark books offer.

As a character, Kagen falls on a flattish side. He's young, brash, and highly-skilled, a superior fighter who doesn't think much of himself. Of course, we are supposed to cheer when he finds a goal (kill the Witch-king ) and stops drinking, but such a change is hardly surprising.

Maberry's characters have well-defined personalities and are all memorable but rarely complex. I love it in his Joe Ledger series, but I could use more character-building in Kagen. Now, don't get me wrong. Kagen and other protagonists are distinct, and you won't forget them anytime soon. It's just that their motivations and development aren't "organic."

Cthulhu mythos plays a vital role in the story. Maberry impressed me with his take on Elder Ones. The series's opening suggests Elder Ones (Hastur, Cthulhu) have plans for this world, and humans are merely pawns. I'm excited!

As an experienced writer, Maberry has good control over pacing and structure. His writing is mostly accessible, but sometimes he indulges in vivid comparisons ("She was very tall, with flowing hair the color of midnight and lips red as all the sin in the world"). I like his style, though I suspect it won't appeal to everyone :)

I had a great time reading it despite minor reservations and finished the book in two sittings. Short chapters and excellent pacing make it difficult to stop and do something else :)  I'll preorder the sequel as soon as it's listed for sale.


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