Book Review: Into the Dark Lands (or, The Longest Metaphor for an Abusive Relationship Ever?)

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**Major spoilers after the synopsis!**

Title_ Into the Dark LandsAuthor_ .png

Synopsis:

If you’re familiar with the creation story for Middle Earth,  you remember that the Valar, the demigods who helped sing the world into existence, have their own servants called Maiar. Gandalf was a Maia of the Vala Manwe. Sort of like his emissary, right hand, executor of his will, etc. Well, this story is about a war between two beings that remind me of Valar, being waged on the ground by a couple of Maiar, with an unknowing female pawn suspended in the middle. Heh, I guess that doesn’t necessarily make it less complicated.

Basically, Erin is a healer who insists on learning to fight, becoming the champion of her people. Her grandmother, the Lady, is a Servant of the Bright Heart who has seen the coming end of the eons-long war they’ve waged against the Servant of the Dark Heart, who is the evil lord Stephanos. Erin takes the fight to Stephanos himself, ushering in the end her grandmother foresaw and wept over, but the battle she wages is not the one she’s trained for and it involves something else entirely.

My Thoughts (SPOILERS BELOW)

Wow. Was that the longest metaphor for an abusive but irresistible relationship, ever?

Erin is a really compelling character. My favorite thing about her is her stubborn refusal to be cowed or to feel fear of death after her mother’s murder. She’s got raw talent, and she’s brave, and she fights for things. Except the whole time she’s thinking she’s making her own destiny and seeking her own good death, her grandmother, an otherworldly creature that reminds me of the Valar/Maiar in The Silmarillion, has looked into the future and sees that for everything Erin is, she’s destined to become the lover and slave of the enemy.

Enter Stephanos. Stephanos is also a Maia/Vala type creature, like a broody, sexy Morgoth. (Ah! I just realized something. This story is like if Luthien set Beren packing and shacked up with Morgoth!) He abducts Erin to find out what makes her so special, and to torture it out of her. There is a part of her, a light, that he can’t violate or own, and that vexes him. So he takes her home and woos her and nearly rapes her, because her fear is just too exquisite to resist. Creeped yet?

Yeah, me neither. I like it dark.

Just kidding, I am thoroughly creeped.

So, after all this, it becomes clear that Stephanos has potential, but he’s too evil really to know how to love something. He just wants to own it.  (I just realized something else… This is like if Marlene set John packing and shacked up with Stephano in Days of Our Lives! This association game is fun.) He even decides to RENAME Erin Sara, a diminutive made from her title of Sarillorn. He then kills everyone she loves and forces her into a coma so he can remove the memory of her catching him in the act of using her best friend in a blood ritual to make her immortal so she can be stuck with him forever WITHOUT HER PERMISSION.

Okay. So, is this the author’s intention? I don’t know, I think it is. I don’t see this ending well, precisely because she seems to be making a point about this kind of dynamic. I could be wrong, but I think she does a lot of alluding to how this will play out in the final chapters of the book. That possibility, and my love of Erin, is the only reason I’ve rated it a 3/5; if I thought this was just elaborate rape-fantasy ala Tolkien, I would not have even remotely enjoyed it. 

Anyway, I kind of liked it. I think it’s on the nose, but I enjoyed it. Even the really dark romance, though it thoroughly creeped me. I’m gonna read more of Sagara-West’s stuff, for sure.

Strengths

  • Erin’s characterization. She seems fully formed to me, including a rich backstory, a destiny, very real fears and desires, and a spine of steel.

Weaknesses

  • The writing. In my kindle edition there’s a forward by the author that acknowledges this is a first book, and it’s a rough one. I concur; there’s nothing about her prose that stands out to me, I didn’t find any particularly compelling phrasing or descriptions, and that’s okay. You don’t need to be flower-y, hyper-detailed, and poetic all the time. I like simple language, and sometimes that really works. Here, I’m not so sure. This is obviously intended to be epic fantasy, and it reads like some of my 7th grade Tolkien fanfiction.
  • The lack of originality. We get very little creation myth here, and if I saw the connection between this story and Tolkien, I know I’m not the only one. I feel like this is a Beauty and the Beast/Middle Earth hybrid, with very little to distinguish it from its source material. It’s dark, very dark, and I appreciate the daring in the way the book ends and the extremes to which Sagara-West is willing to go, but there was too little beauty and meaning in the cruelty she describes to have it seem like anything other than torture-porn, dark for dark’s sake. My hold-out hope is that she was doing this deliberately, and that in the books that follow in the series we’ll have to deal with the consequences of Stephanos’ actions. There can in no way be a happy ending here. That’s my hope.

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