Michael ‘sits’ down for an interview with Brian Lee Durfee, author of the upcoming epic fantasy, The Blackest Heart.
Fantastic news, folks! We've got an interview with M.L. Spencer about her awesome finale to the RHENWARS SAGA. I've reviewed every book in the series and loved them all.
So tell us about the RHENWARS SAGA. What's it about?
The Rhenwars Saga is about an overpowered mage--the last of his kind--who is tasked with the job of defending a Western-type society called the Rhen from an invasion of an “Enemy” horde from the Northern “Black Lands”, an intentionally Mordor-esque region on the map. The mage, Darien Lauchlin, commits terrible atrocities in order to defend his homeland. But then, in a turn of events, he is taken to the Black Lands, where he discovers the Enemy are a people living in perpetual darkness, who will die without a means of escape. Darien switches sides and soon begins using his appalling power to help the Black Landers invade the Western nations he had formally sworn to protect, committing more atrocities in the process.
What is the set up in DARKFALL?
By the time we get to Darkfall, we have seen Darien’s character go through a tremendous transformation from hero to a haunted man driven by desperation. He has now become a demon, tasked with fighting for the other side against his former allies. This has caused him tremendous mental anguish. However, Darien has now resolved this inner struggle, and he is committed 100% to his new cause.
Can you tell us about Darien and Kyel?
Kyel Archer was Darien’s acolyte, who has become the mage Darien had always wanted to be. Of the two, he is the more traditional hero-type character. He sees both sides of the war as equally human and deserving of protection, while Darien swings from 100% support of one side to 100% support of the other. In Darkfall, Kyel stands against Darien and resists him as much as he is able, while keeping his oaths, morals, and integrity intact—which is no easy thing to do.
Who are the villains in the book?
There really are no true villains in the Rhenwars Saga, at least none that exist in that state permanently. Villains become allies and protagonists become antagonists fluidly throughout the course of the series. The main “villain” in Darkfall is Zavier Renquist, an ancient mage whose goal is the protection of magic. He wants to go about doing this by releasing the equivalent of Iblis (think of Satan-but-not-really) from the Netherworld. To most people, this solution sounds worse than the problem. But not to Renquist, who sees magic as worth any price.
How did you subvert traditional fantasy expectations?
The first book in the series is written to resemble a very typical Lord of the Rings setup, where you have the beautiful Western civilization filled with white people who are resisting an invading horde of evil creatures from some dark area on a map (these creatures being evil because, well, evil.) You have all the typical fantasy tropes: a dashing, powerful hero with a broken heart. His noble fellow-adventurer who trails after him like a faithful puppy-dog. And the beautiful love interest who remains steadfastly by his side through it all. This should end as expected, right? Boy falls for girl and they share a never-ending true love. Our hero repulses the invading horde with the help of his faithful Samwise-type friend. Good triumphs and Evil is vanquished. And they all live happily ever after in the Great White West.
Nope. Not in this world.
It turns out the invading horde are very human, with a very real and dire problem. They are not white, but brown. They are not invaders, but refugees. Not evil, just desperate. Our Western society is not as good and pure as we thought, but rather barbaric and sanctimonious. Our hero is a damaged man capable of atrocity. Romances devolve into betrayal and heartbreak. Friends and allies become enemies, oaths and loyalties are shattered, and there is no Happily Ever After for anyone. The Rhenwars Saga de-fantasizes the fantastic and brings it crashing into reality.
Can you describe the Westerners and the Darklanders?
The people of the Rhen are the typical people we are used to meeting when we open a fantasy novel. The Rhen resembles Western Europe, filled with kingdoms, towns, temples, and all the usual trappings.
The people of Malikar (The Black Lands) are based on a Middle Eastern society, both Bedouin in the outlying areas and the Ottoman Sultanate in the northern region. They have a strict code of honor, a rich culture that has adapted to the lightless conditions they have been forced to suffer, and are highly disciplined.
What were you going for in your epic? Themes and ideas behind it?
The Rhenwars Saga is an allegory for the modern-day relationship between the West and the Middle East. Rhenwars was conceived after 9/11, when I was still trying to wrap my mind around why anyone would want to fly an aircraft into a building (or three). So I started trying to understand the conflict between the West and the Middle East from both sides of the War on Terrorism. After learning a bit about the area’s history with the West, cultural climate, religious perspectives, etc., I was able to get a better understanding of both sides of the picture, and how each side believes they are morally justified in employing sometimes atrocious tactics in order to advance their political agendas. It’s really a very fascinating topic, how two sides can view themselves as justified and morally righteous, while labelling the other side as malevolent and morally bankrupt. It all comes down to a perspective shift.
How has response been to the books?
Mixed. I get a lot of reviews on Book One complaining that it is very generic. Unfortunately, some people don’t go on to Book 2, where you find out the “point” of the entire series. With the launch of my Box Set, more people are reading through, and the response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. I’m getting a lot of fantastic feedback from readers who say they love the direction the Saga goes in, and that it is wonderfully different from any fantasy series they’ve ever read before. There seems to be a great deal of excitement over it.
Any advice for self-publishers?
Advertise your book. And do so in ways that get you the best return for your advertising dollar. Above all, don’t try to sell your book to other authors. Sell it to readers.
Is it true there's a collection available and on sale?
Yes! The entire Rhenwars Saga is available as a box set for only $0.99 right now, which is a steal!
What's next for you?
Right now, I am committed to helping a fellow author who passed away finish his series, so I will be helping to ghostwrite that over the next several months. After that… Well, that’s where it gets complicated. I had a new series in a different world planned, world-built, and ready to go. But then I started getting a lot of feedback from my readers that they really wanted another Rhenwars series. So I am now writing a spinoff series that takes place roughly 20 years after the Rhenwars Saga.
Can you recommend any other authors and their work?
Absolutely! I love the works of C.T. Phipps, Richard Nell, Eric T. Knight, JA Andrews, Jesse Teller, Frank Dorrian, Rob Hayes, and Sean Hinn.
Pick up your copy of the series here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07KLXCH5X/
1. So, tell us about Shattered Hopes.
It’s a book. (insert canned laughter). Ok, more serious answer. (insert canned applause, moderate). Shattered Hopes is the recently published sequel to my first novel, Shattered Dreams. It used to be bigger than its 150k words. Around 300k words, to be precise. David Wilson, my publisher, suggested I cut it into two parts because it was too big. Dreams, in comparison, was only 158k words or thereabout, so I looked for the perfect cliffhanger; and I think I found it.
When I was still planning to self publish I wanted a trilogy, because fantasy trilogy is a thing, and it’s cool. Now it’s a pentalogy, more of a tongue twister, but David’s correct, at almost 700-800 pages, it would have been freakishly huge. I should know, I had a proof copy of the initial version. If I make it big, this will be a one of a kind collectible… if not, a handy doorstopper.
Starting with Hopes, I have changed my approach. Gone are the in-chapter viewpoint shifts, now it’s like A Song of Ice and Fire, one chapter, one viewpoint.
The story begins almost immediately after the events of Shattered Dreams come to a close, things are shit, the enemy army is at the gates, and winter is coming. (Yeah, that’s a trigger phrase, but that’s actually something the defenders are hoping for because the besiegers can’t maintain the siege, if supply routes are snowed shut) And more shit is piling on… good stuff.
2. What separates your universe from other fantasy on the market today?
The realistic mythological approach, I believe. What’s that? I love mythology, Greek, Roman, German, Norse, Celtic, always been infatuated with the tales of gods and heroes and all the good stuff. So I approached my world that way. If you look at any of the old myths, everyone is, basically, Greek or Roman or Viking, even Etzel who appears in the German Nibelungenlied is a Germanic king, even though he is Attila. They all speak the “native” language, worship the same gods, etc, and it has to be that way because if the Greeks were, for example, to meet the Phoenicians with their different gods and whatnot, the entire thing would fall apart. How can the titans have formed the world and the gods created it, if there are other gods?
So I started with what I like to call creation fact. This is how it all began, and I developed it from there. There is only one language, yes, but over the years it changed, like every living language does. So while the language the, say, elves use is the same the humans learned, there are differences (not that I write things phonetically, but still) -- think American and British English. It’s the same gods that are worshiped everywhere, skin tones will, of course vary, but even that has an in-world explanation.
Since I wanted a more Dark Age-y feel to humanity, I made the conscious choice to have my humans be a young people. They are the inheritors of the elves, at least in the region the story takes place in, and they are technologically far less advanced than the elves of old. Where does the realism kick in? Well, the world is brutal. You don’t see knights in shining armor. There is no good or evil, people are, by and large, just people. (cue Depeche Mode) And while there are places where people fling shit out of windows, it’s not the places that also have running water.
3. Would you consider your work to be grimdark? Why?
I don’t know. My characters are flawed, for the most part, sure, but I don’t relish in having bronze broadsword cut through silver mail to have guts spill out onto the marble. If the Saw-esque torture porn of psychotic killers doing their super-heroic butchery on the pages while swearing like Hit-Girl on an acid trip is grimdark, then I would not consider it grimdark at all. If that is the definition of grimdark, I don’t want any part of that kingdom.
I’ve always loathed the good vs. evil shit that is going on in far too much fantasy, and I agree with you, Charles, that A Song of Ice and Fire has, ultimately, become the same black and white thing. The white walkers are evil, humanity is not. Sure, there might not be a straightforward goodness to most characters, but overcoming the evil from without is still the endgame.
Are there monsters in our world? Yup, some even rule countries. But I think most people just want to get by. You know, do what’s right, care for their kids, work, help others. The psychopaths are the exception. And even most of them aren’t categorically evil, because that would require a direct agenda other than “I do what I want because no one is my equal” or “The rest of humanity is but meat”. Good and evil are concepts that go along with monotheism. Even Loki or Hades weren’t evil, they just did their thing.
Look at our society; does the CEO of Monsanto see himself as evil because they produce toxins that fuck up the planet’s eco system? Most likely not, he just doesn’t care. That’s not evil, that’s sociopathic. Or sociopathetic if you will. You have people like Rockefeller who thought they were chosen by their deity to be grand, which was reason enough for him to manipulate and sabotage all his competitors. I bet he didn’t see himself as evil either, far from it.
So, taking a mythological world and populating it with real people, people who doubt, smile, fear, fight, even kill to make it just to the next day or week or month, that’s what it is… whatever that is.
4. What is grimdark to you?
To be honest, the bit of grimdark royalty that I read is as appealing to me as poking my eye with a chili peppers. What others might consider grimdark is, to me, merely realistic fantasy, scifi, or whatnot. The really revolting psychotic stuff is like rape porn, to me, shit I don’t want to watch, find in no way appealing, and don’t want to touch again.
5. Tell us about your protagonists.
Drangar Ralgon – a broken man on his path to uncovering more of his past.
Kildanor – a warrior bent on helping Drangar find peace.
Ealisaid – last of the Phoenix Wizards, a novice mage with delusions of grandeur.
Rheanna – a priestess of the god of justice, one of the Riders, warriors who kill wrongs.
Jesgar – a spy in training.
Anne – warleader of the invading army.
Urgraith Mireynh – High General and warlord of the invaders.
Lloreanthoran – an elven mage with a mission.
Darlontor – leader of the Sons of Traksor.
As you can see, it’s quite a list and I can’t really talk about that much since it’s all tied to the story somehow. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot going on and to explain one story thread would also unravel the rest.
6. What inspired you to write this universe?
I wanted to get away from good vs. evil, shining heroes vs. vile villains. I wanted something that is wholly my own. Sure, I put a twist on almost every cliché in the book, my elves are vicious, my humans aren’t much better, but I didn’t want the “oh – an orc kingdom here, let the gnomes live there” D&D-ish approach. There’s a reason the elves are farther along than the humans, it may not make sense to most readers, but it has to make sense to me. There has to be a logic to everything on a grand scale. Developing languages doesn’t interest me, especially when there’s bronze broadswords to avoid.
One day, I’d love for someone to just take a step back and look at what I created and say something like “Damn, that is brilliant…” not as praise, I couldn’t care less about that, but appreciation of the logic that went into the world. I want things to be there for a reason, not the haphazard shit with “wouldn’t it be nice to have a Viking culture next to this renaissance society?” or “Hey, there’s a huge desert with this city in the middle” with no river or major roads that people still use, you know the shit that actually causes cities to be built. If they’re missing, people will abandon these places. Cahokia, Pi Ramesse, Petra, all places that were abandoned because the circumstances changed!
7. Who is your favorite character?
Truth be told, I have two. Drangar, of course, since he’s been with me since 1992. And the squirrel I killed off in Dreams. And YES! I know people hate me for it. But I needed at least one hero in the story. (Heroes are those that give their lives to save others, the rest are survivors.)
8. What would you say the themes of your book are?
In the end, I think, it all boils down to choices and living with the consequences. Who am I? Part is my surroundings, part is my parents. We’re all so many parts of something or other, and in the end we must decide which parts we allow to dominate our lives. Some parts we can’t escape, or if we try, we cut off a part of ourselves. Which are the parts worth keeping? Which are save to discard?
Life… life’s the theme.
9. What sort of things bother you in fantasy today?
To be perfectly honest, I barely read fantasy anymore. First it was because of it distracting my own work, now it’s that and I have discovered a passion for crime/thriller books and such. But in essence it’s the same thing as I addressed over various prior answers. Lack of consequence, realism, even normal physics. Sure, one might say that physics have no place in fantasy, but since the people still wear boots, use rain coats, and horses, we can be sure that gravity does work, rain still falls down, and mounted movement is still more comfortable than walking. So yes, this stuff matters, and a city without fresh water for fields and such is about as useful as nipples on a Batsuit.
10. How has the response been to your book so far?
Shattered Hopes has just been released, but the reactions so far have been very positive, but only time will tell.
11. Would you recommend any other indie fantasy writers?
See 9, but Dyrk Ashton comes to mind, his Paternus stuff is out of this world. Damien Black, his work, the level of detail and the richness of his world reminds me ofKen Follett. I’ve a few books lined up that I’m giving a try soon. (Once I’ve finished Lucifer’s Star by this dude called Charles Phipps, mad as a hatter, I tell ya! And I love him for it.)
12. What can we expect from you next?
Right now we only have the ebook version of Shattered Hopes out. The city map my friend Faith has been sweating blood and tears over for over a year now requires a further touch up for the print version of Hopes, when that’s done, the dead tree version will be released. After that I have a short story coming out in an anthology edited by Charles Phipps (shameless plug, I know, but still).
Shattered Fears, the third book in the series, is complete, but we haven’t determined when to release it yet. Another short story is in the works. All the short stories take place in “Drangar’s world” (for lack of a better word), including the one published in Booknest’s own Art of War. (plug again!) And last but not least I’m developing something super insanely amazing for Charles Phipps’s Lucifer universe… seriously, I almost shat myself when I came up with this idea.