DARKFALL is the grand finale of the Rhenwars Saga and it's nice to have a series which ends properly even if the ending is bittersweet. M.L. Spencer is one of the new voices in dark fantasy (which I use when talking non-pejoratively about grimdark fiction). She doesn't use violence or swearing to win her accolades but a persistent deconstruction of the traditional heroic narrative.
The premise of the series is that a ragtag band of heroes tried to save the world a 1000 years ago and failed miserably. Instead, the world has been divided into a dark and depressing hellscape as well a picturesque Gondorian paradise. You'd think this would be an easy set up for a conflict between the "good" people from the pretty lands and the bad people from the pseudo-Mordor, right? Wrong. It's much more like George R.R. Martin's Wildlings versus the North except the Watch equivalent are mages. Except in this universe, Jon Snow defects to join the side of the Wildlings and they really are going to butcher as many people as necessary to.
For the past few books, we've watched the main character of Darien struggle with his loyalties. Darien has resolved that conflict and has now decided to go 100% #TeamDarklands. The problem is that it was never about serving one side absolutely and all he's done is become a monster in service to a new cause versus recognizing the humanity of both sides. However, the other side is #TeamLightlands and the only thing this is going to accomplish is get more people killed.
Darien is a character who has had a magnificent and complicated journey from plucky hero to deranged fanatic. It's wrong to simply term him as a villain, though, even when he's planning on massacring every survivor of the villages he conquers in order to make sure there's enough food for his army of refugees. His decisions are irrational but he's certain he's making the most logical plans he can as both PTSD as well as stress have worn him to the quick.
On the other side of the conflict is Kyel, who has become the mage Darien tried to be but refuses to cross the line and break his Oath of Harmony (no killing with magic). This despite the fact he's leading a massive army to exterminate the Darklanders. Kyel is the more traditionally heroic of the two but he's surrounded by people with absolutely no honor who, ironically, don't trust him because he thinks of the Darklanders as people.
There's a third faction of individuals trying to figure out a way to deal with the "Convergence" that is coming around for a second time and potentially will render the entire war moot. I, personally, like their story most as I was always fond of its characters and don't feel comfortable spoiling all of the twists as well as turns there. It does, however, nicely illustrate the healing power of revenge. Really, what can you say about a story where murdering your closest ally in saving the world is a legitimate means of doing good?
The series end on a bittersweet note which foregoes the nihilism of Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy and is more akin to Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire. Some measure of redemption is achieved by a few characters while the majority of the cast doesn't make it out of the finale. It's a lot harsher than the Lord of the Rings but, ironically, I think honors its Tolkien inspiration better than most. War is a traumatizing and soul-destroying activity that never fully is recovered from. It remembers Frodo dies of a broken heart (Journey to the West aside).
In conclusion, this is an epic ending to an epic series. Whatever her future works, M.L. Spencer has created something that I believe deserves to be read by fantasy readers throughout the world. The characters are beautifully illustrated, tragic, and well-realized. The action is amazing and full of amazing feats that would make a blockbuster movie. The morality is also ambiguous but makes real and solid points. The world-building is simple but always consistent with revelations about its structure until the last. Read this series. You won't be disappointed.
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.
DARKLANDS is the third volume of the Rhenwars Saga by M.L. Spencer, a series I've very much enjoyed. I've referred to it as "The Anti-Wheel of Time" and I think that's a fairly good description of it. It's a series which takes a typical battle between good and evil, epic romances, Chosen Ones, and Forsaken wizards then turns it all on its head. The fact the Wheel of Time did some of this itself doesn't prevent the Rhenwars Saga from serving as an effective critique. I also appreciate the books don't take forever to each their conclusion.