I very much enjoyed M.L. Spencer's Darkstorm novel, which was a breath of fresh air from the usual fantasy novels which have a massive threat to the world only for the heroes to resolve it with a laugh and a lark. So, I was very interested in picking up Darkmage which was the sequel set a millennium later. The world has managed to recover from the first book's apocalypse but bear's permanent scars. Furthermore, there are still those who would like to repeat casting opening the gates of hell to let the forces of Xerys, God of the Netherworld through.
Which happens in the first few chapters. Say what you will about M.L. Spencer but she wastes no time in setting up the drama of the situation. The Hellgate is open the same way the Oblivion Crisis was started in The Elder Scrolls. The ancient order of mages which protected the world are wiped out in similar swift fashion and soon all of their accumulated power is trapped in a single individual who is insane with grief over his lover being sacrificed to bring about the end of the world.
I have a bit of a complaint in that it's a bit difficult to see where the original story relates to the current one save for a few references and the obvious fact the threat of hell invading is the primary one. I really bonded with the original story's cast and it was disappointing to find out they wouldn't be returning due to the immense time skip (as well as events in the previous book). Still, I gradually warmed to Dairen, Naia, and Kyel. They are a trio similar to the original in the context of being thoroughly unsuitable to be heroes and that turning out NOT to be an asset (unlike in all other fantasy fiction where misfits are always the best opponents of evil).
Of the main cast, I'm most fond of Dairen as he's a nice Rand Al'Thor figure (more on this later) where he's being driven insane by his powers but is willing to sacrifice everything in order to get revenge against the forces of Xerys. Unlike Robert Jordan's creation, though, the price for his actions are very upfront and clear. Everyone despises him for his status as an abomination, he will be forced to die if he's going to stop the end of the world, and he's already suicidal due to the loss of his lover Meiran.
In fact, there's a lot of Wheel of Time influences in the book but the world is considerably darker. Good people die left and right with the "good kingdoms" being more or less content to let the borderlands bleed themselves white protecting the world. It's extraordinarily hard to take any of the figures who'd be heroes in fantasy worlds seriously with their concerns about Dairen as they'd rather he leave the Hellgate open than potentially threaten the status quo. By the end of the book, I had almost zero respect for their trust in law and goodness to win the day and that was obviously what the author was going for. This is very much an Anti-Tolkien book as the One Ring is the only way to defeat Sauron.
Indeed, I found it quite refreshing to have a fantasy novel where the extremists and people willing to make horrible sacrifices as well as do terrible things are the ones in the right. The Oath of Harmony has a direct parallel with the Aes Sedai's oaths in that it is extraordinarily questionable as anything other than a geas meant to reign in mages from ruling the world. The fact everyone considers it a objective good when it may result in SATAN taking over the world via pacifism is not a philosophy I get behind despite my own religious beliefs.
Bizarrely, I also give this book credit for having one of the few truly good grimdark romances. The romance between Dairen and his dead lover (i.e. his obsession with her memory as well as insane hate-filled desire to both avenge as well as join her) mixes with his uncomfortable lust for Naia. Naia is an idealistic priestess (of death) who believes there's a chance she can have a tragic but idealistic relationship with Dairen despite the fact he's recovering from his lover's horrific murder/damnation. It's such a deconstruction of typical fantasy romances that I really enjoyed it and was reminded of Crysania and Raistlin in Dragonlance's Twins Trilogy.
In conclusion, this is a really good book for people who want some darker-than-normal epic fantasy. It's closer to Warhammer than The Lord of the Rings but that's not a bad thing and I think people will really enjoy the ending.