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Darkstorm by M. L. Spencer

Darkstorm by M. L. Spencer
4.5
Book Name: Darkstorm
Author: M. L. Spencer
Publisher(s): Stoneguard Publications
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: January 19, 2017

My early impression of Darkstorm, the prequel to the Rhenwars Saga series by M. L. Spencer, was that everyone was a magic user; and that in contradiction to the adage, An armed society is a polite society, this dark fantasy’s society of mages was far from polite.

About halfway through, I realized that not everyone was a wizard or sorceress. My mistake could be understood, however, because the cleverly layered plot is hidden by a potential war between two countries ruled by respective conclaves of mages, and all the main characters are magic users who either seek to prevent or benefit from an impending magical cataclysm.

The magic system is based on fields of energy, which coalesce around vortexes. Mages can tap into these fields to heal, harm, or impress people with cool party tricks. Within the two rival countries, Rhen and Caladorn, the ruling hierarchies form the basis of very different cultures, yet there is one commonality: while someone may have an affinity for magic, and might study how it works, they can only obtain the ability to use it through a Transference from a master.

Where Darkstorm shines is in its damaged characters. The most intriguing of them is Merris, an acolyte of Rhen with magical potential, who yearns for a Transference. She comes off as driven and ambitious, though her goals don’t become clear until the end. With the expectation of at least one mild romantic thread in epic fantasies, I could never quite pin down her true love—probably because she seemed to find several powerful people attractive. We never really learn who… or what… her True Love is until the end, and it won’t be all warm and fuzzy like in The Princess Bride.

Her master in Rhen, Sephana, is having an illicit affair with Braden Reis of Caladorn, who is in Rhen to negotiate peace between their nations. While heroism is in short supply in Darkstorm, Braden most closely fits the more classic mold of hero… if mold is that green fuzzy stuff that grows on my sink basin. He is ready to sacrifice friends and family for the greater moral good. When Merris uncovers a leader of Rhen engaged in mysterious and possibly illicit activities, Braden sends her to Caladorn to warn his young brother Quin.

The brothers share a tragic past, one which has left Quin as a recluse, drowning his sorrows in alcohol and sex. Not a bad life for most, not the best if you are starring in a fantasy story. Nonetheless, of all the characters, I felt he popped off the page the most, with clever dialog and witty banter.

Merris, Braden, Sephana, and Quin must work together to uncover an insidious plot that could mean the genocide of almost everyone in the world. Standing in their way are not just a memorable cast of magic-using villains, but also their own desires and baggage.

M. L. Spencer’s writing is vivid and descriptive, painting a picture of exotic cultures through the point of view of visitors to new places. From the early medieval city of Bryn Calazon to the ice fortress of Vintgaard; from the plains and rivers of horse trading tribes and the foreboding Well of Tears; it all feels organic and believable. If there is a shortcoming, it is purely technical: Spencer’s use of said-isms sticks out in the dialog exchanges.
Because of this, I cannot in good conscience, give Darkstorm more than an 8. However, like the main characters of the story, I do not have a good conscience, so I will rate it a 9.12 (about the same I give to Bojangles Fried Chicken), and promote M. L. Spencer from Acolyte to Grandmaster.

NOTE: I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Simon Wright (is it me, or are there are a lot of narrators named Simon?). His smooth and evocative Scottish accent carries the narrative, and I confess that the way he pronounced short ‘u’ sounds had me questioning my sexual orientation.

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