Into the Dark Lands is the first in the Sundered Quadrology. It begins the story of Erin of Elliath, Warrior of the Light, and Stefanos, First Servant of the Dark. Erin is born into a time of constant conflict, the Servants of the Bright Heart and the Servants of the Dark Heart have been locked in a war for millenia. Although Erin is born a healer, scarred by personal loss, she chooses instead to wield a sword and fight the enemy on the battlefield. But Erin's greatest struggle will happen after she is captured by Stefanos and taken to the Dark Heart's stronghold. The First Servant of the Light has gambled everything on the hope that Erin might be the one to pull from the darkness a lasting light.
The version I read was the 2005 reissue which includes an introduction from Michelle Sagara that is well worth reading. She explains how the book came about, and why she decided not to rewrite it for reissue, as other authors have done when their first novels are re-released. She refers to ITDL as her dark romance, and it is essentially a version of Beauty and the Beast.
The story itself begins with a prologue - do not skip this - which explains the origins of conflict. To sum up here originally there was the Light (Lernan) and the Dark (Malthan), each thought they were perfect and didn't know of the existence of the other. One day they touched and when they did, parts of them fragmented - these became the Sundered (the servants of Light and Dark). The two sides fight one another, eventually Light and Dark lock together and sleep (removing the greatest power from the conflict), leaving their children behind to fight. Some of the Sundered mated with mortals creating half breeds - the Lernari and the Malanthi. But Gods don't sleep forever, and when Lernan reawakens, Malthan is not far behind.
As we join the main story, the Lady of Elliath (First Servant Bright Heart) has returned from traversing various futures, trying to find the one that will end the war. She has found only one slim hope that her grandaughter Erin will be able to pull a lasting light from the darkness. The course she chooses for her people is one full of sacrifice and pain, risking everything for just the possibility of success.
I loved this story. It's not one I'd recommend if you prefer a lighter romantic tale. This is dark and powerful. The character description is sparse, MSW mentions in her introduction that she added ten thousand words of description as part of her first set of revisions and even so I think the only physical thing we learn about Erin is that her hair is auburn, and then not until well into the story. I didn't mind about this. I often find myself imagining characters differently to how authors describe them, so this was quite freeing. Instead we know what's in her heart, what she fears and hopes, which I think is far more important than what colour her eyes are and how tall she is.
The story is essentially in two parts. The first part deals with Erin's childhood, her training and how she becomes a warrior. There are scenes here that are absolutely heartbreaking. When Erin attends her father's funeral as a young child. MSW absolutely captures the loss of childhood innocence.
Eventually Erin is chosen to be Sarillorn of the Line, a member of the Lernari who contains a portion of the Lady's power, and carries it onto the battlefield. And it is through her exploits as Sarillorn that she captures the interest of the First Servant of the Dark. As a healer, at the end of battles Erin heals both her own side and that of the enemy, causing some of the mortal members of the Malanthi army to change sides. She becomes a great threat. When she is eventually captured by Stefanos, she offers herself in exchange for the other hostages.
So begins the second part of the story - the development of a relationship between Erin and Stefanos. He agrees to her bargain, because there is something in her that draws him, and he wants to take her apart over and over again, until he can understand what it is. Make no mistake Stefanos is not misunderstood, he's empty of all save his purpose - he isn't even human and MSW just makes this so clear. I can't think of another anti-hero that comes close. He reminds me of a shark, how they learn what things are by biting them. What he forgets however, is that when the darkness touches the light, the light also touches the darkness. By torturing Erin, he is also changed.
Towards the end of the story Erin realizes the path she is on, (to paraphrase Tolkien) to be a light in the darkness when all other lights go out. In the empire that Stefanos is building, the majority of people become slaves to the Malthan nobles. Tortured and offered in blood sacrifice to the Dark God. Their languages and history become illegal, to speak your own name is a death sentence. The only mercy to be found is any that Erin (now called Lady Sara) can persuade the First Servant to give.
Stefanos who has never loved anyone realizes that unlike him, eventually Erin will grow old and die. In the final pages of the book, true to his nature, he commits an act of horror to keep her with him. Betrayed by the priest of Malthan, Erin witnesses it, and Stefanos has to take drastic action to keep her with him.
This story is so much about choice - what would you give up, what would you sacrifice for a lasting peace, for love when you never understood what love was. It's also about the nature of things. Stefanos is like the scorpion in the tale, he is what he is. He remains true to his nature, even as he is able to offer concessions to Erin. But Erin expects / hopes for more from him. In the end would you choose to be true to yourself, or to the one you've given yourself to. How far would you bend for that person, before you break completely.
I don't like to give A grades to the first in a series. But this story is so darkly powerful, it deserves an A.