Darkmage is set in a world where the only things standing between the (mostly) peaceful kingdoms of the Rhen and the Black Lands of The Enemy are the desperate men guarding the border and the Mages of Aerysius.
The novel has a number of point of view characters, moving in and out of the story, taking the reader around the kingdoms, drawing the story together in places, expanding it where necessary. The bulk of the story though, is told through the eyes of Darien Lauchlin. He begins the novel as an acolyte mage but in rapid succession is elevated to full mage and possibly the most powerful in history. He is betrayed, loses his home and just about everyone he cares for.
A very strong part of the novel is Darien’s progression from young, relatively innocent soldier to a haunted man, equally revered and cursed by those he wants to help. The reader is led through what he will do, to others and to himself, in order to do what he believes will save the lands from the agents and armies of the enemy. It’s often easy to be simultaneously appalled by his arrogance and the way he treats people but also understand why he’s doing so.
The world building in the story is very well done. There is a sense that there is a long history in the kingdoms, and pieces of that history are given out as needed. You learn everything you need to follow the plot without any large info dumps, but there is more than enough to suggest a lot more is in place, possibly being held back for future instalments. The same is true of the way magic works in this world. Again, some aspects like the passing of abilities are detailed, while others, like the orders of mages, are only alluded to.
Despite it being billed as the 1st book in the Rhenwars series, Darkmage can be read as a stand-alone novel. Both the writing and the world are strong enough to support this and I certainly had no difficulty enjoying the novel on its own terms. Having said that, I would eagerly visit the Rhen again…