Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Bookwyrm's Review of Darkstorm by ML Spencer

Author: ML Spencer

Length: 304 Pages/ 9 hrs, 5 mins (audio)

Release Date: January 19, 2017/ January 22nd, 2018 (Audio)

Publisher: Stoneguard Publications 

Narrator: Simon Wright

I had this series recommended to me by several friends who told me that it takes one fantasy trope after another and smashes them to pieces on the alter of Grimdark.Well, being a huge fan of grimdark, I got excited by the idea of something original, not just another Prince of Thorns or Before They Are Hanged knockoff...err, homage. I am happy to report that not only was this true, but the author took those tropes and burned them to ashes. What is left is an original, swerve filled race to a conclusion you just will not see coming. On that note, we'll get into the review.

When apprentice mage Merris finds out she is going to be kicked out of the mages guild, she follows the head of her guild out one night to try and dig up some dirt on him that would allow her to use the information to fend off her removal. What she discovers instead of some midnight assignation or other such scandal puts her life, and the very fate of the world, in jeopardy. She comes across a group of mages not only from her city-state of Aerysius, but from the neighboring city-state of Bryn Calazar, which are a hairs breadth from war with each other, involved in a dark ritual with netherworld powers. After she escapes, she goes to see her mentor, Sephana, who she discovers is having an illicit romance with the ambassador from Bryn Calazar, Braden, who helps her escape to Bryn Calazar by sending her to his brother Quin. How much this helps is debatable, since Bryn Calazar is most definitely a patriarchy, unless you have status as a mage as a woman. The problem is, Quin is a drunken wreck. 

After convincing Quin of her bonifides,  Quin and Merris approach the head of his mage guild, and this is where everything goes pear shaped, as they are unexpectedly betrayed in the guild hall and end up on the run. Meanwhile, in Aerysius, Braden and Sephana are captured trying to spy on the cabal, and they are transported to a secret base in Calazar lands. The conspirators, all high ranking mages, explain to Braden what they are about. They are trying to head off the end of magic and civilization as they know it, as magic is going to have a polarity shift, killing all mages and destroying anything created with magic, like buildings in cities. The cabalists have decided the power of the dark god in his Netherworld will allow them to hold the polarity shift off for a thousand years. All it will cost them is their souls, and a bunch of human sacrifices...

This leads to a wild second half of the book, as Quin, Braden, Sephana and Merris try and work against the cabal, which has power throughout the highest levels of both kingdoms. There is epic magic battles, giant cavalry battles as there is an uprising against the cabal by  Braden's people, which all leads to the final confrontation between the cabal and those trying to stop them. There is also a huge betrayal you don't see coming which costs those trying to stop the evil a member, and which definitely effected the outcome.  Definitely a grimdark ending, although there may be a ray of hope, however slight, even with the sacrifices made.

The characters are the true strength of this book. While the setting was well described and gave you a feeling of being there and the plot is fast paced and never lagged in the slightest, what happens with the characters is really what hooks you. Whether it's Quin's self destructive behavior, Braden's quest to do right for his kingdom whether it wants it or not, or Merris trying to maintain the life she has, you really care about what happens to them. When you find out the details from their past's it really humanizes them. Even if some of it makes them less sympathetic, Their flaws just make them that much more believable. The villains, who are actually trying to do what they see as right, are well drawn out, and even somewhat sympathetic. They do evil for a greater good, which you don't see too often. There isn't a mustache twirl in the group. It really is a well thought out group of characters.

I had never heard Simon Wright narrate before this book, but I found him to be a compelling voice. He really put the effort in to bring the characters to life, whether male or female, no matter the voice or accent. His pacing on the narration is spot on, and he keeps you engaged in the story, waiting to see what happens next. Definitely a voice to check out.

All in all, this is a fantastic addition to the grimdark fantasy ranks, as good as anything put out by the big names like Cook, Martin, Abercrombie and Lawrence, and actually maybe a hair better than a couple of those! This is a prequel to a larger series, so it will be interesting to see what the decisions made in this one lead to in the future of the series.