An interview with M.L. Spencer about her wonderful dark fantasy series The Rhenwars Saga. Its novels follow a centuries long saga struggle between mages and demon worshipers were the good and evil aren't quite as clear cut as you might think.
1. So, can you describe The Rhenwars Saga for new readers?
I just won a “Shortest Pitch” award for this...what was it? Oh, yes: “Two opposing orders of mages and a gateway to hell.”
2. What is the premise of Darklands?
In Darklands, Darien, the protagonist from the last novel who gave his life to seal the Well of Tears and rescue his lover from the Netherworld is back, only on this time he has sworn his soul to the God of Chaos. He is tasked with delivering the people he has only ever known as the Enemy from the curse of darkness that has plagued them for a thousand years: a mission which puts him at odds with his former allies.
3. Who are the protagonists of the book?
The main protagonist is Darien Lauchlin, former Sentinel of the Rhen, now a Servant of Xerys. There is also Quin, another servant of the who pledged his soul to Chaos, and Meiran, Darien’s former lover, who is now the leader of the Rhen’s decimated mages.
4. What separates The Rhenwars Saga from other fantasy novels?
The Rhenwars Saga takes all the familiar tropes you would normally expect to find in a typical fantasy series, blends it all up at high speed, and then sprays the resulting concoction all over the kitchen.
5. Darklands is a story which reverses a lot of the good vs. evil we expected from previous books. Was this planned from the beginning? Why go this direction?
This was definitely planned from the beginning. The Rhenwars Saga is about setting up assumptions and then challenging those assumptions by switching perspectives. So this sudden “redirect” in plot direction gave me the chance to shift the camera and see the world through the eyes of the Enemy. In fact, that is exactly why they are called the “Enemy” in the first place: the name typifies the kind of lack of understanding and disregard the people of the Rhen had for their neighbors to the north.
6. The romance elements of your books are always tragic. Is that your style or a deliberate choice to contrast your book against other books?
I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for tragedy. But that’s not the real reason why so many of the romances in my books end tragically. The Quin-Amani-Braden romance tragedy has echoing consequences that shook an entire world for a thousand years. The Darien-Meiran romance isn’t necessarily over, so I’m not going to say how it’s going to ultimately end. But I will say this: it will be logical and realistic outcome that could end no other way considering the personalities of the characters involved and the situations they face.
So...I think the overarching theme here is I enjoy realistic outcomes that might defy the typical – but utterly unrealistic--fantasy romance.
7. What were the influences on the cultures in the setting?
The cultures I drew most heavily on were pre-Islamic Bedouin culture and Ottoman-era Turk.
8. Do you have a favorite character among your leads?
I’m torn between Quin and Darien. If you make me pick, I’ll have to say Darien, because he literally has been in my head for over 20 years. Quin is a relatively recent addition to my cast.
9. What books would you recommend as being like yours?
Definitely "Wraith Knight” by C.T. Phipps! It’s the only book I’ve yet read that really turns the tropes around like Rhenwars does. I get compared to Jordan and GRRM a lot, but I don’t see it. OK -- I kind of see it with Jordan, but it would be a really MESSED UP Jordan. Kind of like if Rand had joined the Dark One and started fighting against Egwene et al. I guess another one I could see a parallel would be Stoker’s Dracula.
10. Did you have any authors that influenced your world?
Plenty! Jordan, of course. Raymond E. Feist, Stephen King, and C.S. Friedman are probably the big ones.
11. What can we expect from the next novel in the series?
The proverbial excrement is going to hit the wind-generating device. War is coming to the Rhen, and it will not be pretty as former friends are realigned as foes. I can promise tons of trickery, treachery, and tragedy! Plenty of hearts will rupture and bleed.
1. So, tell us a bit about yourself, Matthew.
I’m a guy in Iowa who likes to write books and do Escape Rooms with my partner in life and crime, Ren. A lot of my local efforts are in helping other authors find the resources to make their writings available to the masses, through my website davenportwrites.com. Originally, I’m from a one horse town that lost its horse in Upstate New York, called Harrisville. I moved to Iowa to follow a career in Archaeology, but the reality of the bills related to an Archaeology education led me taking a more serious look at both my author career and my “day job.”
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but in 2009 I took it a step further and decided to write an entire book during NaNoWriMo. I failed by half of the required 50,000 words, but saved the rest to finish in 2010. Since then, I’ve tried to put out at least one book a year, with my goal being at least 2. I’ve done a few collaborations, and I like to explore different styles of writing as well as different genres, but always seem to come back to either horror or adventure in some manner or fashion.
2. What are your books? I've read all of them but want you to explain them to the reader?
I have a few series and stand alone novels. The first of which, The Trials of Obed Marsh, was my first dive into the darker worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. I spent lot of time researching not only the fictional history laid out by Lovecraft for that story, but also, as it’s a book about sailors and trade routes, the different paths, weather patterns, and cultures of the sailing and trade industries in the early 19th century. It’s a book that is horror, but not like today’s horror, in that there’s very little gore or literary jump scares. This book is about the dark path that a man can willingly travel when he has only the best interests of his family and crew at heart. While I wrote it as a prequel to Lovecraft’s A Shadow Over Innsmouth, it can be read by people completely foreign to his mythos. The road to Hell is a universally understood tale.
I didn’t stop there, as far as Lovecraft is concerned, and probably never will, but I needed something less dark and more exciting in my next project. My Andrew Doran series, (2 books and a short story currently) follows a globe-trotting adventurer during the 1940’s as he tries to keep the different artifacts of the Cthulhu Mythos out of Nazi, or other evil hands. Along the way, he runs into just about everything you could think of, and then some and makes some interesting allies and enemies.
In 2015, I decided that I wanted to write with my brother, Mike. He’s always had a huge imagination, but sometimes has a problem finding a creative outlet. I asked him to come up with a plot and send it to me. We went back and forth, with me making suggestions and him crafting an entire world that would become the book Broken Nights. Broken Nights follows Jason Night, a failed hobby shop owner who has suffered serious loss in a city that has too much loss already. Deciding that he can’t let the tragedies of his life be repeated, he signs up for an Amazon Prime account and starts taking MMA classes. In the dark of the night, he becomes Darden Valley’s Guardian. Things heat up when his sister, also struggling with the same tragedies, discovers her brother’s nightly activities and demands that he let her help him.
3. You write a lot of Cthulhu Mythos fiction. What attracts you to H.P. Lovecraft's world?
A lot of the time, when authors work in another author’s world, they refer to it as a sandbox (ie: I love playing in that author’s sandbox.), referring to the world structure put forth by the author. I’ve always felt that comparison has never been apt. For most authors, it’s more like Legos. Things are built, and you don’t want to tear them down beyond their core components, you just want to build on them and make them fit.
Lovecraft’s worlds are nothing like that. They actually fit the sandbox reference, in that Lovecraft has created an entire universe that encompasses everything and his sandbox really is his writing style. While his creatures are great and fun to play with, you can write an entirely Mythos related story by keeping to a theme. A protagonist that doesn’t have all of the information, goes on a lengthy investigation, and every tidbit of information during this investigation dials up the scare and/or dread. Oh, and always end on the darkest possible note that you can. That’s fun. That’s the definition of fun when I’m writing or reading. I’ll play with the monsters all day, but if I can leave a book feeling empathy for a tortured protagonist, than I’ve succeeded at life.
4. Andrew Doran has been described as "Indiana Jones meets the Cthulhu Mythos", do you feel that's a fair description?
The fairest. My archaeology career lent itself toward enjoying the fandom that is the Indiana Jones series, and, I don’t remember when or how, but I started fantasizing about if Dr. Jones ever were to fall into the world of Lovecraft and how that might play out. It was in those early fantasies that Dr. Andrew Doran, my bearded Anthropologist from Miskatonic University, was born.
5. Why do a novel about Obed Marsh, a posthumous character from The Shadow Over Innsmouth?
Zadok Allen has a big scene in The Shadow Over Innsmouth in which he paints a picture of a beautiful town and a man who wanted to bring it to prosperity. While Shadow is easily my favorite Lovecraft story, it’s really the end of one. Most of Lovecraft’s stories are that way. Someone shows up, things have already gone to hell, and someone gives a long exposition about the time that they went to hell. Give Thing on the Doorstep a read and you’ll see what I mean. So, I decided that a great story would be the one that told the journey from the myth of the man to the man we see in Shadow.
6. Superheroes are big now but come in many different shapes and sizes. What sort of hero is the protagonist of Broken Nights?
Jason is the average person struck with tragedy. He’s not a billionaire playboy with an alcohol problem. He has almost no money. When you meet him he’s bumming a room off of his sister and running a failing hobby shop. He’s a superhero on a budget and with responsibilities. He’s tough, but only because he needs to be, and he’s not alone. No brooding on gargoyles, he’s got a couch and a Coors when he needs to brood.
7. What is the difference between writing in a world created by someone else (H.P. Lovecraft) versus your own original work?
Lovecraft has certain rules. I write in Lovecraft’s world because I like writing in a different voice, and I like those themes that I mentioned earlier. There’s also a lot less world building when I write in Lovecraft’s realm, and the world building I do, I have references for. When I write in a world that I create, I can just take off. The world building is a huge part of that process, and is a lot of fun. It’s also more personal. When someone reads a world that I built, I’m hanging on their every word, hoping that they’ll love my story enough to make it their new favorite fandom. That’s my true goal, if I’m completely honest. I want someone to someday see my works in the same light they see his, or Star Wars. I want people to go to Cons dressed as Jason Night or Andrew Doran.
8. Can you describe the heroes (and villain protagonist) of your books?
In The Trials of Obed Marsh, there are two main characters. Obed Marsh is both the protagonist and antagonist of his tail. He’s fighting his own struggle and pushing his personal line of right and wrong back so that he can justify the costs it takes to make his home a prosperous place. He’s pushed by the second, a native he meets during his trades, named Walakea.
Andrew Doran is the pulp adventurer. He collects cohorts on his missions who are just as stubborn and obsessed as he is, but for their own various reasons. He’s driven to keep the world safe from the horrors that it isn’t even aware of. Monsters hide behind the veil, ready to throw the world into chaos and only Dr. Doran stands between the world and those monsters. He wears the burden, but makes it look easy as he downs a glass of Bourbon.
Jason and Amy Night, the sibling team of Broken Nights, are complementary in their skillsets and identical in their grief. They both want to make their corner of the world a better place, and their different skillsets sometimes put them at odds. Like any brother and sister team, when they can make themselves work together they can be a well-oiled machine.
9. Recently, you were a self-published author but have gone on to work with Crossroad Press. What caused this decision?
The move to Crossroad was made for a lot of reasons. Up until recently, I’ve done a lot of the work a publisher would do, myself. It’s tiring and takes a lot of time. I am also aware of my limitations. Crossroad can help me get my heroes in front of the right audience, something that I had only managed to do in part up until this point.
That being said, I still believe that some of my works should remain self-published. Specifically, I have a how-to book that helps walk authors through the process if they are unaware of it, and it’s important that they know that the person who wrote that how-to actually knows the process. Of course, I’ll keep sending every title I can to Crossroad until they tell me to stop. I love what they’ve done with my books and love the amount of time that I’ve freed up for more writing.
10. Both Andrew Doran and Broken Nights are series. Do you have an idea when they'll end or intend to continue with them indefinitely?
I think Andrew Doran is going to continue for quite a while. I can’t help but enjoy diving back into the Andrew Doran stories as much as possible, and he’s great for killing writer’s block. If I don’t have a story idea brewing right now, then I’ll write some Andrew Doran.
Broken Nights is a slightly bigger question, as I’m working on that with my brother. He and I have only talked as far as a trilogy. I don’t have any plans, as of yet, to take that any further. That being said, I don’t think that universe is going to end at book 3. I introduced a character in the upcoming second book in the Broken Nights trilogy, Broken Nights: Strange Worlds, who I think might enjoy her own spinoff series. It would be a mix of Supernatural and X-Files, I think.
11. How has fan reaction between to your books so far?
Great! No one really talks about The Trials of Obed Marsh, but that seems to be the book everyone wants. When I meet Broken Nights fans, they are always fun. I have had several of them tell me things (I totally disagree, but love them for their opinion) like, “This is better than the Netflix superhero shows.” I love hearing that. That tells me that someone sat down, read that and thought it was somehow better than a show or series of shows that I am passionately addicted to.
Andrew Doran fans are the most vocal, though. Between other authors who have begged me to write more, to fans who have followed me to multiple signing events, to actual fan letters that I’ve received, I have never felt more like a rockstar. I say that as if it happens all of the time, but it doesn’t. Maybe a few times per year an Andrew Doran fan will reach out, or beg to know when the next one is, but it is one of the greatest feelings anyone can experience.
12. Any controversies or interesting stories from publication?
Not that I know of. Stay tuned, I’m sure there will be a huge fight between Spielberg and Ridley Scott for the rights to the Andrew Doran movie.
13. What can we expect from you next?
Broken Nights: Strange Worlds, the sequel to the first Broken Nights book will come out soon, I’m hoping. Book One asked what it would take to make a normal person into a real superhero in a world of pain and reality. Book Two, I’m hoping answer the question of what a realistic superhero will do when faced with an earth-shattering revelation regarding how the actually is.
I’m currently working on a horror novel that focuses on a star salesman recruited by the Devil into his organization that convinces people to sell their souls. Much like The Trials of Obed Marsh, it will ask the question of how far should someone go for a comfortable life. It tells the story through the unique view of a sales representative, with commissions and that special culture, and examines the relationship between an honest profession tainted by a dishonest product. I’m also working on the third Andrew Doran novel. Stay tuned.
Hey folks, I'm very pleased to give you an interview with the author of SHATTERED DREAMS. It's a book we've reviewed twice here on the Booknest.eu with both of us loving it.
1. So, tell us about the Drangar series?
It all started out on a day long in the past. No, seriously, it did. I wanted to hang with some friends, accompanying them to one of their fabled cons. Those cons, for me at least, were all about partying, but I also wanted to contribute to the shared world. So Drangar Ralgon was born, and I wrote a bunch of connected short stories about his adventures. These short stories were my first steps into writing. All in German back then.
Fast forward a few years later, and I wondered why I had trouble finding the correct words. Writers need to read a lot, and I did! Then it hit me, I read everything in English. Primarily because most translations sucked at that time. One short story that made people laugh later (a story which wasn't really that good, but hindsight is a strange animal) and I knew that I had to continue writing in English.
At first I wrote in the style found in the books I was reading at the time, mostly omniscient narrator and all that heroic stuff. The plot followed the short stories, but given the scale of an actual novel and the lack of restrictions due to not writing in a shared world, it quickly expanded. But I wasn't happy, neither with myself nor with the writing. Me and it lacked focus. The first part of solving that particular puzzle came in form of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. When I read those books, I knew how I wanted to write. What I lacked now was actually the motivation of writing again. To say I had hit a slump would be a grave understatement, I was depressed, had suffered throughone breakdown already, and by 2007 the second breakdown was at hand. My best friend kicked me until I went to therapy.
As part of that therapy, I rewrote the entire first novel in three months, and then, with the aid of another friend, honed what would become Shattered Dreams.
Not to sound too conceited, but in a way the story, Drangar's story, is as much about self-discovery and healing of one's spirit as it is about people and swords and magic, or people with swords and magic. In the beginning the protagonist is a wreck. Ironically enough, that part has existed since the very beginning, my alter ego was damaged, only I didn't know I was just as damaged. Over the course of the story he gets better.
Sure, there's more to it, but you have to read the book to find that out.
2. What separates the Drangar series from other epic fantasy about there?
I didn't want to write a "genre book" per se. Sure, it's fantasy, but I want it to appeal to non-fantasy readers as well. Even with GRRM's books, the base appeal is to fantasy fans, with the hurdle of others picking up the novels lowered only by the TV series. I tried to focus on people rather than mythical dangers and such. And given that the non-fantasy-people who have read it, love it, I guess I succeeded there.
While writing the story, I did not read any fantasy. Instead I read every other kind of fiction, and some books for research, of course. That was and is intentional, since I do not want my prose to "echo" any other fantasy author's. No idea if it's bad or good, but it's mine, my voice, my prose. Another thing, it's small, contained, the story literally takes place in an area smaller than most states. Since I focus on characters, I figured that territorial intimacy is preferable. Shit that happens, happens in the neighborhood and affects people.
3. Who are the protagonists?
Drangar, a mercenary turned shepherd who tries to avoid facing his past
Kildanor, one of 24 Chosen of Lesganagh, the Lord of Sun and War
Ealisaid, the last Wizardess due to the fact that no one woke her from hibernation
Jesgar, a young man who took up thieving as a hobby
Anneijhan, short Anne, a noble warleader with the enemy army
Mireynh, the invaders' High General
Lightbringer, a being who has had her fingers on the tillers of history for millennia
Lloreanthoran, an elven mage tasked with retrieving forgotten artifacts
Bright-Eyes, Lloreanthoran's squirrel familiar
4. Could you describe your world for us?
I like classical mythology, Greek, Roman, Celtic. In each of these the world is created by deities who then rule over the thing. There are no differing religions or gods, because, well, it's their world. Basically I go with what I call creation fact. The world as the people know it, was created by the gods, no other deities are present, and since the people have one origin there is, literally, no difference in outward appearance, with variations according to geography (i.e. closer to the equator and skin color will grow darker)
There is only one language. The former masters of the world, the elves, have all but vanished, leaving behind a humanity that tries to figure itself and the elven technologies out.
The analogy that I chose is: Elves = Romans at the height of Empire, humans = Dark Ages. I didn't want the all too generic mix of technologies one finds in far too many games, be it D&D or WoW. I basically sat down and wrote out my creation fact, how the world came into being, added the obligatory battles between various godly factions and all that. There are loads of familiar things in this unnamed world, but I strive to take clichés and turn them inside out. It's a world in turmoil, and no side is good or evil.
5. Do you prefer high fantasy or low fantasy?
High fantasy, to me, screams Dragonlance or Lord of the Rings, and I found the older I get the less I care for it. For the stereotypical good vs. evil stuff, I mean. When I look at Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, I see low fantasy. And while I like the yarns REK and Leiber spun, I think I prefer an amalgam of both, with a serious influx of realism. That's what I like about A Song of Ice and Fire, on the surface it's gritty realism, and the deeper you dig, the more fantastic it becomes, without losing the grit.
6. Would you describe your book as grimdark?
Hah! To be perfectly honest, I didn't know about grimdark when I wrote it. I read GRRM and considered it well written, realistic fantasy. I'm just gonna say: "I consider it a damn good story" because in the end the rest, the trappings if you will, are negligible. To paraphrase a famous German movie producer: "A book is good when it's good." In the end that is the only thingthat matters.
7. What do you think of the grimdark phenomenon?
Realism is always a good thing, and I think that every piece of fiction should be realistic, within the logical confines of the world. Grimdark is a counter movement to the heroic fantasies like Shannara, D&D-world novels, and such. It's necessary. Our world has changed, and in the wake of the end of the Cold War, lines have become blurred. Sure, we got moronic and sociopathic leaders, but more and more people realize that the "Russian" or the "American" or "French" or "Chinese" or "German" are, all in all, just people.
Fantasy and Science Fiction can easily adapt to such societal "revelations." But I think that brutality for brutality's sake or shock value just to be called "grimdark" is abhorrent, similar to torture porn. If a novel's cast of characters just consists of psychopaths and sociopaths, people who have no inherent redeemable qualities, who cannot by their very nature have redeemable qualities, a reader won't connect… or if they do, I wonder what kind of people they really are.
Give me realism any day of the week. Have people swear, sweat, fuck, fight, love, lose, kill, die all you want, but if you're just out to shock people or outdo someone else, that's not for me.
8. Did you do a lot of research to create your world?
I'm still researching things. To truly portray a lived-in world, you need to know how people lived in the times similar or close to similar to what you are describing. You need to know a bit of everything, basically. Of course, it does help if you live in a town whose oldest buildings were erected before the Thirty Years War, and have two castles and one castle ruin in your neighborhood. But those locales are only visual aids, the actual research comes from historians and archaeologists, of course. Applying real world history to a fantastic world, replacing certain things with fantasy elements, that is the fun part of one's world development. And understanding the evolution of things, be it architecture or weaponry, just makes things, again, more realistic.
9. Do you have a favorite character? If so, why?
Drangar. He's been with me for over twenty-five years, and yet I discover new things about him whenever I write from his perspective. He and I are a lot alike, and, I guess, we both do our healing together.
10. How has fan reception been so far?
So far. The people who have read Shattered Dreams love it, for the most part. Some complain that it isn't a self-contained story but the first book of three, but that's complaining on a very sophisticated level. Understandable, but I couldn't cram the entire story into one book of well over 1000 pages.
11. Do you have any other authors you want to give a shout out to?
Ed Greenwood: for the support and the blurb, and for pointing out that "Hell" is a shitty term to use in a non-Judeao-Christian fantasy setting.
And Charles Phipps: for the fun conversations, both in Candlekeep and Facebook, and the support. Thanks, friend!
12. What can we expect from you next?
I think I will have some tea. Hehe, other than that I am pondering whether to finish Drangar's saga first, or start something different, smaller, more fast paced to maybe attract an agent with. I guess the many viewpoints are too much for an agent to sell as newcomer author.