Author: C.D. McKenna
Publication Date: 3 March 2023
Available As: Paperback, hardback, and e-book
Following the drastic events of The Blood of the Lion, the dark and thought-provoking epic high fantasy continues with more world building and far more magic. War is on the horizon and a new empire is rising.
King Morei made the ultimate sacrifice to win the battle against Diemon, but the consequences are more than he is prepared for. A plague has struck the city of Geral, but its cause is diabolical, and the consequences are devastating. The citizens are desperate for an answer, but when rumors ensnare Morei in the cause for the city’s downfall, the king’s control slips further.
Syra has one goal: to reach the Infernol, a secret organization committed to preparing the Vorelians against the resurrection of the Lirallian Empire, once ruled by the most powerful Energy Harvester in history, capable of manipulating volatile forces. But destiny has other plans and Syra must face the truth of her heritage, even if it costs her everything.
Across the Ashen Sea, Cyrus finds himself in East Razan, the ancient city of Eiyrặl. He’s promised answers by the king himself, but curiosity forces Cyrus to question what he is told. What he finds will force him to make a choice: become the Dragon Rider he is destined to be or continue to run.
The Gods are growing restless…and the dead will rise.
As you can probably guess from the title, The Mark of the Damned is the second in C.D. McKenna’s high fantasy epic, The Vorelian Saga. If you haven’t read the first book, The Blood of the Lion, then you absolutely should as it’s quite the thrilling fantasy piece and basically every character, event, and plot point of The Mark of the Damned builds upon what happened in the first book and directly references it. While the book doesn’t contain a dedicated opening chapter to catch new readers up on the first book, the omniscient narrator and the characters recap key events throughout the story, especially in catching others up with what happened and explaining how they got to where they are, so I’d say it’s conceivable that you could start here if you wanted to but you’d be missing out on a really good fantasy story if you did that. I’ve read a fair number of indie books and C.D. McKenna is easily the most impressive in terms of her scope, enthusiasm, and presentation; like its predecessor, The Mark of the Damned features gorgeous artwork, an absolutely stunning hardback edition, and is bolstered by maps of the fictional regions of Sorréle, Diyrặ, and Eiyrặl, which is frankly above and beyond the call of duty for an indie publication. The Mark of the Damned also includes a helpful addendum that explains certain terms used in the book to help readers pronounce the name and learn more about the locations, Gods, and mythology of The Vorelian Saga, which is a fantastic addition.
If you’re a fan of epic, high fantasy books then you’re in for a treat here! The Mark of the Damned is split into two distinct parts and clocks in at around thirty titled chapters, which is already massively impressive. Luckily, the chapters are very easy to digest and, as much as it’s a cliché to say, the book is a real page turner; at no point was I bored and finding myself getting lost or frustrated or confused and this is a big deal for me when it comes to fantasy. The author continues to do a wonderful job of fleshing out this fictional fantasy world, touching upon terms and mythology and describing locations in a concise and imaginative way. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, this is a world that has “moved on” somewhat; magic, to use layman’s terms, exists but is sporadic, harnessed only by those who are particularly attuned to different elemental and supernatural “energy”, and the world is largely comprised of God-fearing people. Our three main characters are all able to manipulate energy in some way, but they’re either poorly trained, confused by it, or on the precipice of being consumed by it; they’re also all largely agnostic or have reason to curse the Gods and each discovers throughout this story that the Gods are not only real, but are playing an active role in shaping their destinies. Indeed, while the book skips over a central battle that ended the first book and reflects on the ramifications this has on the troubled “Demon King” Morei, there’s a definite sense that a larger conflict is looming, one which the three main characters will play a central role, and the focus of The Mark of the Damned is exploring how the characters react to being swept up by their unavoidable fates.
As ever, we follow three main characters: the aforementioned Demon King, Morei; the Dragon Rider, Cyrus, and his trusty winged companion Sozar; and Syra, a young woman cursed to defend the legendary “Demon Killer” blade. Each are compelling in their own right and embark on entirely separate adventures in this book; their quest lines converge in a thematic and tangential way, but they’re not directly interacting with each other just yet as it’s clear that the author is building towards a dramatic conflict between the three. Cyrus still edges the other two out as my favourite; a loner by nature, persecuted for his silver eyes and unique bond with Sozar, he flees to a new land in search of answers to his heritage and finds himself the guest of King Kyllian. The kingdom of Razan are in awe of him and his dragon and treat him as a treasured guest, but not only does this make Cyrus almost as uncomfortable as his self-imposed isolation, there are strange things afoot in Razan. Cyrus finds his welcome strained when he becomes close to Kyllian’s daughter, Princess Zorya, an outspoken young woman who is torn between her duties to her father and kingdom and wanting a life of her own where she’s not forced to marry some dimwit prince. A natural recluse and wary of strangers, Cyrus is immensely uncomfortable in Razan and his suspicions that Kyllian is hiding things from him about his past and his people only increase as his story progresses, leading to some startling revelations and him having to choose between a life on the run, hounded by all, or living up to his stature as a Dragon Rider. As much as I enjoyed Cyrus’s arc, I was a little disappointed by how little Sozar factors into this story; the dragon spends almost the entirety of the book resting in the courtyard and conversing telepathically with Cyrus rather than taking an active role, but that’s just a me thing as a big dragon fan and I still really enjoyed their relationship and trust in one another.
Like Cyrus, Syra is also on the run; she really went through an ordeal in the last book, being betrayed and watching those closest to her die, so she’s naturally quite guilt-ridden and burdened by her losses, similar to Cyrus. Syra is surrounded by a handful of allies who assist her, though she constantly fears for their safety and keeps them at arm’s length to avoid hurting them by association. Her paranoia is only exacerbated when her party is joined by Zarek, one of the mysterious and semi-supernatural Guardians of Death, an order who assisted and then betrayed Syra in the last book and who are duty-bound to protect her since her destiny is irrevocably tied to their home, the chaotic “Soul Realm”. While Cyrus is inclined to run away from his destiny, Syra actively denies and decries it; she feels an immense sense of obligation to safeguard the legendary Demon Killer but is constantly cursing the Gods for putting such a burden on her. Her only choice in this second book is the stay on the move and under the radar to avoid attention, but she cannot outrun the gaze of the malevolent Dark God Sekar. Sekar was an ominous and elusive figure in the first book but steps to the forefront here, especially in his interactions with Syra that not only fundamentally change her forever but also reveal him to be a complex individual. Until now, we’ve only heard his name being cursed, his image being stricken from idols of the Gods, but here we learn a lot about him from his own mouth and see that he’s as much a victim as any of the other characters. It’s fascinating stuff and adds to Syra’s harrowing arc in this book; Zarek is unrelenting in his training of her, and she really has to go through a lot of physical, mental, and emotional abuse to prepare her for her greater destiny as the fabled “Light Bringer”.
Sekar’s influence also extends to Morei, my second favourite of the main characters. Morei was already regarded with fear and suspicion after murdering his parents but the kingdom of Geral are even more suspicious of him after he gives in to his destructive “Dark Energy” to defend the city and then a deadly plague, Cu’cel, sweeps through Geral, afflicting and killing countless people. Even Morei is infected, which doesn’t help his standing, and he’s both distraught and enraged to find that the people he’s fought so hard to protect regard him as nothing more than a monster. Morei’s story is mainly centred on him desperately studying old texts to find a cure for the plague and win back the favour of his people, his passionate and tumultuous relationship with Queen Emerald, and him being forced to name a successor and step into a background role so that Geral has a hope of surviving. There’s a real sense that Morei genuinely cares for his people; he goes out amongst them, is deeply pained by their suffering, and is willing to step aside from an official position all to keep them safe and is constantly infuriated by the way his council treats him and that people always assume the worst of him. There is precedent to this, however; while Morei is a complex character who resists his dark temptations as much as possible, his rage is legendary and he is often cold and threatening towards even his closest allies if it means shielding them from harm or if they question his power. Morei is easily the most conflicted and volatile of the three characters and the nexus point through which they’re all connected as he met Cyrus once and regrets treating him so badly and learns of Syra and the blade she carries, which I’m sure will be important in a future story. He’s the living embodiment of a scapegoat for his people, who blame every atrocity on him not matter what he does, yet he does everything he can to see Geral prosper, even if it means unleashing his destructive Dark Energy and inherent bloodlust. While Morei doesn’t leave the confines of Geral, his surroundings are noticeably different thanks to the plague and his descent into darkness is a crucial element of the book; the author is going to great lengths to humanise and justify Morei’s turn to the dark for a greater purpose, I’m sure, and it’s really engaging seeing him walk this fine line between politics and outright tyranny.
The Mark of the Damned really is an epic, sprawling tale and yet the writing is so crisp and so refined that it never feels overwhelming. This is a very character-driven story; there are sporadic bursts of action, gore, and spicy sexual encounters throughout the book but it’s very much focused on expanding upon the three main characters and edging them closer towards their seemingly preordained fates. In this regard, it’s not necessarily bigger than the last book (though the author does expand the lore out to encompass new lands and people) or more action-packed, but instead maintains the same commitment to character, plot, and lore building. There’s so much that is touched upon and not dwelled on, creating a sense of mystery and sowing the seeds for future stories, and other elements that are told to us but through unreliable perspectives. Stories of the Soul Realm, Sekar’s narrative, even the tales spun by Kyllian are all largely subjective and this perfectly ties into the book’s themes of trust and fate. Each character shares a lot of similarities, more than they would care to admit, but has vastly different core personalities that make their chapters distinct and engaging in their own way while still tying into the overall enjoyment of the plot. Make no mistake about it, this is a hell of a tome but don’t be intimidated; C.D. McKenna is a beautiful wordsmith and I was engaged with the story from page one so I would absolutely recommend stepping back into the world of The Vorelian Saga and strapping in for an epic ride!
If you’re interested in checking out The Mark of the Damned: The Vorelian Saga #2, and to learn more about C.D. McKenna and her journey as an author, visit the links at the top of the page.
I can’t wait to get around to these eventually