Review: Kagen the Damned
Jonathan Maberry is another one of those authors that just seems to put out good stuff, over and over and over again. Joe Ledger, Rot & Ruin, thrillers, stand-alones, short stories… the guy is a writing machine and seems to knock it out of the park at every turn. So when I heard he was finally going to give Epic Fantasy a go, I could hardly contain myself. Automatic pre-order, check. Anticipation extreme, you better believe it. And then, in the midst of a bunch of truly bummer reads, in swoops one of my favorite authors to save the day!
What do you think? Over-selling it a bit? Yeah, I thought so too. I mean, I know you can see the rating I gave this one from here. Ugh. Is this string of disappointments from my core favorites ever going to end?
KAGEN THE DAMNED is the first in a projected trilogy centering around the titular character as he and those he knows are impacted by the vengeance of a man known only as the Witch-King.
Kagen is a sworn protector of the progeny of the Silver Empress, leader of the Silver Empire that has reigned over its lands and peoples for a thousand years. In that time, as happens with most empires, other nations and peoples have been killed and subjugated along the way, all in the name of “the greater good”. It is from one of these long-ago-defeated nations, Hakkia, that the Witch-King has arisen, brought his armies and leaders, and in a single night, sacked the capital city of Argentium, killed the Empress and her children, and replaced the very head of this once great empire with a man whose motivations we as readers are completely ignorant of.
I read this one a while ago, but I can still remember the process my level of excitement went through as I was moving through the book. After about 60 pages, I’d started to be kind of concerned at where things were going, after 80 I had serious concerns, and by page 100, I’d pretty much given up all hope. I can’t help but blame this digression from my initial level of excitement on what each of the PoV characters in the story were doing. TLDR: Hardly anything.
One of the great things about the Joe Ledger books is just how well Maberry does character and makes us care about what’s going on. Typically, the large majority of the book is told from Joe’s perspective, and then there are occasional jumps into the PoVs of various bad guys that help to flesh out the story and ramp up the tension when we start to see just what all is going on behind the scenes. By-and-large, the characters in these diversion scenes are only minimally developed (there are a few exceptions to this generalization). There are reasons why we love Joe and his team of characters. Reasons why we constantly come back for more.
KAGEN THE DAMNED suffers from a surfeit of characters that only move the plot instead of filling it with their motivations. Disappointing.
And I really don’t think that Kagen displayed any of those reasons. Maybe that was the point? I’m not sure.
Here, Kagen drives most of the story. He wakes from a night of “off-the-clock” debauchery to find himself in the midst of a battle that is already lost. He fights his way to the Empress’s chambers, and when he finds the extent of the casualties and what has come to destroy those he loves, eventually he flees from the city. He then proceeds to wander around in a drunken stupor for the next several hundred pages, bemoaning the fact that he’s “damned”, and everyone agreeably falls in line behind him. Except for the people he kills because he wants to. In general, characterization is pretty light, and I never really settled into the idea that Kagen was anything even close to someone I would want to try to understand (let alone be sympathetic toward, if that’s the kind of thing you look for). Again, as I seem to be finding in multiple places, this story seems to be an instance where it tries to go in for “Dark” or “Grimdark” and ends up only scoring on the gritty parts and failing completely to tell an engaging story.
The remainder of the PoV characters are little more than locational cameras for us to see what’s going on elsewhere, for all of the characterization we get. Ryssa, a young acolyte of the Garden religion of the Silver Empire, runs from the invading Hakkians, naively following a nun of her order across the land at her behest, with no real idea where they are going or why. A couple of the Witch-King’s advisers watch what their new leader is doing (mostly brooding wickedly on the Silver Throne), and generally cowering in fear of what he might desire (no idea) besides retrieving the escaped Kagen Vale. Several other individuals associated with the Garden religion of the Silver Empire get tied into an effort to find Kagen after it’s revealed that he is the key to defeating the Witch-King. Nice bit of PROPHECY there. But there are a load of supplementary characters here, and very few of them get any real treatment of CHARACTER at all.
Overall, the story felt very cliche–very old-school fantasy (in a bad way) from both a structural and set-piece perspective–and additionally lacked any kind of serious motivation for any of its list of PoV characters, other than those that seemed to progress the plot. (Apparently there are also a lot of overt references to other pieces of literature woven into the story that didn’t impact my reading experience at all. Hmm. Go figure.)
Now look. Maberry has written some amazing-tastic stuff. I have a hard time believing that I will ever dislike anything from the Joe Ledger series. By no means am I suggesting that you shouldn’t read this guy. Maybe just avoid this book. If you haven’t tried him before, seriously, do yourself a massive favor and go find PATIENT ZERO (EBR Review).
As for this series, I’m having a difficult time believing that I’ll ever be able to talk myself into reading the second book. Especially in light of the fact that its title is simply another name for… you guessed it: Kagen the Damned.
- Recommended Age: 18+
- Language: Frequent and strong
- Violence: Bloody and gory, violence against children
- Sex: Several scenes that get fairly detailed