Interview: M.L. Spencer

Darklands by M.L. Spencer

Last Updated on August 19, 2020

Recently, C.T. Phipps had a chance to chat with M.L. Spencer about her novel series, The Rhenwars Saga. You can also read a review of Darkstorm, the first book of The Rhenwars Saga.

M.L. Spencer

[CTP] So, can you describe the Rhenwars series for new readers?
[MLS] I just won a “Shortest Pitch” award for this… what was it? Oh, yes: “Two opposing orders of mages and a gateway to hell.”

[CTP] What is the premise of Darklands?
[MLS] 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 this time, he has sworn his soul to the God of Chaos. He is tasked with delivering the people he has only ever known of as “the Enemy” from a curse of darkness that has plagued their land for a thousand years, a mission which puts him at odds with his former allies.

[CTP] Who are the protagonists of the book?
[MLS] The main protagonist is Darien Lauchlin, former Sentinel of the Rhen, now a Servant of Xerys. There is also Quin, another mage who pledged his soul to Chaos and Meiran, Darien’s former lover, who is now the leader of the Rhen’s decimated mages.

[CTP] What separates the Rhenwars series from other fantasy novels?
[MLS] 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.

[CTP] 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?
[MLS] 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: I left them vague intentionally because the name itself typifies the kind of lack of understanding and disregard the people of the Rhen have for their neighbors to the north.

[CTP] The romance elements of your books are always tragic. Is that your style or a deliberate choice to contrast your book against other books?
[MLS] 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 romantic disaster 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 a 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.

[CTP] What were the influences on the cultures in the setting?
[MLS] The cultures I drew most heavily on were pre-Islamic Bedouin society and the Ottoman-era Turks, especially around the time of Suleiman the Magnificent.

[CTP] Do you have a favorite character among your leads?
[MLS] I’m torn between Quin and Darien. If you make me pick, I’ll have to say Darien because he has been living in my head for over 20 years. Quin is a relatively recent addition to my cast.

[CTP] What books would you recommend as being like yours?
[MLS] 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 George R.R. Martin 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.

[CTP] Did you have any authors that influenced your world?
[MLS] Plenty! Jordan, of course. Raymond E. Feist, Stephen King and C.S. Friedman are probably the big ones.

[CTP] What can we expect from the next novel in the series?
[MLS] 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! It’s also a lot more brutal and gory than previous installments. Plenty of hearts will rupture and bleed!

Darkstorm by M.L. SpencerDarkmage by M.L. SpencerDarklands by M.L. Spencer

The Morals and Ethics of The Rhenwars Saga

The Rhenwars Saga abandons the traditional theme of “good versus evil” to explore the gray boundary between two differing moral philosophies.

Most people have never heard the terms deontology or consequentialism, but these two moral philosophies are common themes explored in fantasy, whether readers know it or not. The Rhenwars Saga is much more of a conflict between different moral philosophies than it is a battle of good versus evil. This invites readers to question closely held preconceptions and assumptions and perhaps see familiar fantasy tropes in a very different light.

“The ends justify the means” is the famous quote attributed to Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli that effectively sums up consequentialist ethics. The funny thing is, Machiavelli never actually stated that exactly. Nevertheless, it does embody the spirit of consequentialism which holds that the rightness or wrongness of an action should be determined by the results of the action. If one carries this “practical” approach far enough, then any method of achieving a goal is deemed “justifiable”, which can be reprehensible. It is common to see consequentialist ethics employed by typical antagonists and antiheroes in fantasy to justify atrocities.

In deontology, the morality of an action is determined by the action itself rather than the resulting consequences. This can lead to an overly simplistic form of absolutism which ignores the circumstances. Attributed to philosopher Immanuel Kant is a form of deontology often referred to as “duty-based ethics”. He basically argued that morality is based on duty and that (only) the intent behind an action should be used as a basis for determining the rightness or wrongness of it. Fantasy is filled with well-meaning protagonists motivated by a strong sense of duty. But, as we all know and to paraphrase St Francis de Sales or St Bernard, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

The main protagonist from Darkstorm, Braden Reis, adheres to strict deontological ethics and is very inflexible in his conduct. By contrast, his brother Quin is constantly compromising his values. This pair find themselves facing a cabal of darkmages intent on opening a gateway to Hell in order to save the magic field of their planet – a noble intent but supported by heinous deeds.

As the story evolves, many of the good guys in The Rhenwars Saga end up appearing morally wrong, while many of the antagonists turn out to be morally justified. All of the characters fall on a sliding scale of morality – regardless of whether they worship the gods of “good” or the god of “evil”. So, what you end up with is a cast that doesn’t conform to moral stereotypes, instead drifting back and forth over ethical lines. This allows for the exploration of the subjective aspects of morality and the impact of social and cultural constructs on the characters, tearing apart the readers preconceptions of “good” and “evil”.

The image of the compass rose, the eight-pointed star that appears above the chapter headings of every book in The Rhenwars Saga, is a symbol that represents a moral compass. The black field behind the right half of the star represents consequentialist ethics, while the light half of the field represents deontology. The symbol actually has a dual meaning. Since the novel’s magic system is based on a planetary “magic field”, the compass rose is also representative of the world’s magic system.

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CT Phipps

CT Phipps

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He's the author of Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, Straight Outta Fangton, and The Supervillainy Saga. He is also a frequent contributor to Grimdark Magazine.