Grimdark can come in many forms. For most readers, they have a sense of dark and gritty fiction with plenty of swearing as well as violence. A strong sense of moral ambiguity is a must with many protagonists being compromised antiheroes. The Rhenwars Saga by M.L. Spencer starting with Darkmage, is different since it provides a bunch of idealists as its protagonists, but their actions rapidly go down the rabbit hole of making the world a worse place.
Darkmage is technically the first book of the series despite the existence of Darkstorm. This is due to the fact Darkstorm is a prequel that sets up the world’s present state. Half the world is covered in permanent darkness and inhabited by an invading army of enemy god worshipers. The part of the world covered in light is our protagonist’s side and protected by self-sacrificing wizards called the Sentinels. Seems pretty typical, right? Good vs. evil at its core. Wrong.
Darien Lauchlin is an apprentice Sentinel and the son of its leader. He’s in love with another one of them and his life is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. This happens when the organization is massacred, and he’s left inheriting all their magical power. Darien immediately sets on a mission of revenge, believing that he’s been given this godlike power to protect the people of his land from the savages beyond.
Unfortunately, for Darien, the Sentinels were forbidden from using their magical arts during wartime. Darien can do so because of a loophole. All Sentinels were bound not to use their power for killing but he hadn’t taken the oath yet. Magic is also inherited via direct transfer rather than learned so he not only has the power of his own abilities but also the full sum of the entire Sentinel order to call upon. He believes this means he can single-handedly stop the invasion, and possibly can, but many people react to his actions with horror rather than support.
The Wheel of Time influences are readily apparent with Darien as a Rand al’Thor-esque protagonist. The power that he possesses is something that no human can wield without destroying their sanity, yet he believes he can control it. It is also possibly the best tool against the Darklanders’ invasion. However, at what point is it self-defense versus genocide? This is an interesting question that the books will start to get into as we realize magic as a weapon of war is a cruel and unusual one.
I also appreciate how M.L. Spencer deconstructs the typical high fantasy romance. Darien thinks his girlfriend is dead and is emotionally devastated by the events of the novel’s opening. Priestess Naia is attracted to him and tries to emotionally comfort him, only to make the situation worse. A typical fantasy novel would use the tragedy as a build-up for their romance, but Darien finds her actions off-putting and the narrative shows its incredibly selfish to try to create a bond under the circumstances.
Much of Darkmage is a set up for the later volumes in the saga and it starts off as a bit too high fantasy in places to qualify as grimdark. However, the seeds are planted for discussing the larger themes of what a “good vs. evil” storyline really means in wartime. Darien views the Darklanders as nothing more than creatures from a Mordor-like hellhole and we follow his perspective, but enough hints are dropped that he’s just been raised with this view. It’s a problematic view when you have the equivalent of several nuclear weapons at your fingertips.
In conclusion, Darkmage is a very solid opening to what proves to be a lengthy and interesting fantasy epic. It’s a deconstruction of a lot of fantasy tropes but subtler than most. I’ve read the entire series and know where a lot of the plot points will go but most of them are just set up here. Fans looking for dark and gritty will have to wait, though, since it makes use of more idealistic fantasy tropes in order to prepare for the subversion.
Read Darkmage by M.L. Spencer