Author: M.L. Spencer
Publisher: January 2017, Stoneguard Publications
Rating: 4 out of 5
Blurb: The hope of the world rests in the hands of a Darkmage.
The Well of Tears is open and the terror of the night has been unleashed. Now, the last Sentinel left alive with the power to defend his world against the minions of the Netherworld is a man destined to be corrupted into the image of what he hates. In the name of duty, Darien Lauchlin will see oaths forsaken, crowns toppled, friends sacrificed and the land he loves desecrated. For there is a very thin line between duty… and brutal inhumanity.
First off, my apologies it took so long for me to get this review up! I was frantically reading the two semi-finalists from The Alliterates before Christmas and then, once the holiday hit, I took a much needed break from most obligations and social media. Though it’s biting me a bit now, getting back on track and catching up, I definitely needed it. But you’re not here to read apologies and excuses.
You’re here to read my thoughts on Darkmage by M.L Spencer, a semi-finalist for SPFBO.
Right off the bat, I knew this to be a quality read. It’s a fantasy novel that drips with all the elements you want in a really, really solid fantasy read: a large cast of characters, an elaborate war, betrayal, a really fantastic magic system (I particularly liked how much sacrifice played a major role not only in how the magic system worked, between the Oath and the transference of power, but I also really enjoyed how it played a major role as a plot-driver in the story), solid worldbuilding and varied characters. A few books I read in the contest didn’t have this foundational fantasy-type feel to them, but Darkmage definitely did.
However, since this is a contest and Darkmage was cut, I want to spend more of my time focusing on what pulled me out of the story, with every intention of offering constructive, helpful criticism. Please keep in mind these are all my opinions alone and every reader reads a story differently.
The biggest drawback, for me, was actually the scope of the novel. Personally, I felt Darkmage‘s plot packed so much into the novel (and it wasn’t a short one by any means; not that I’m complaining, mind), yet it almost felt like it was packing in too much for me to comfortably read within the scope of “one” story.
At the beginning, though it immediately started off with action and I couldn’t not continue reading, just to figure out what exactly the ramifications were of what just happened, I was still a little bit confused. It felt like I was coming into a story halfway through; I didn’t have time to get to know the main characters and players before betrayal ran rampant and the entire world began to suffer. Sometimes, I’m totally fine with this method of intro, because I slowly learn more about the characters until I understand them fully, able to empathize or loathe their actions. But in this case, I never felt like I had a good grasp on who the characters were–Darien most specifically–so when they began to change, the impact wasn’t there (even though it was obvious some characters changed a great deal and I did really enjoy that we got to actually see character growth, something I didn’t see a ton of within the stories I read for this contest).
Otherwise, I thought this was a really gripping story, with a lot of political intrigue and reasons to keep the pages turning. Sure, I had minor gripes here and there (some confusion on what was going on at times, questioning some actions the characters made or even just some dialogue issues), but it was my feeling like I wasn’t fully grounded that kept this book from being a finalist for me. I almost wanted a prequel story about Darien growing up, so I could learn more about the Mages and their order, perhaps see the events of his father and the consequences of that, and then ending that book with Darien being kicked out and forced to go to The Front. Then, picking up the story here, I think I would have a much easier time understanding the motivations of the characters and why the choices some of them make later on are so monumental.
That said, if you’re a fan of fantasy, I definitely think M.L. Spencer should be on your read list. There are three more books in this series, The Rhenwars Saga, plus a prequel**, and I can only imagine that she has grown as a writer as the series continues (and she’s a strong writer to start out with). I’m really glad I got to read her book and I may continue this series after SPFBO calms down. I’d love to hear if you’ve read it, though, and your thoughts!
**I didn’t realize there was already a prequel written until after doing more research, which might make my suggestion of splitting the story here up (or at least adding more in a prequel) seem silly. But I don’t believe the current prequel covers what I’ve suggested here, but a different story earlier in the timeline of this universe.