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/
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.