In early February I mentioned the serendipity of convention attendance and how buying books by Guests of Honour and attending authors, regardless of whether I’d heard of them or not, led me to discover some wonderful writers – Gene Wolfe and Guy Gavriel Kay to name but two. As far as books are concerned, in addition to Helliconia, I’ve read the likes of Lord Valentine’s Castle, Dragonflight, The Warhound and the World’s Pain and The Magic Goes Away simply because I had the opportunity to get them signed. I was already familiar with all of these authors but without the added incentive, I may never have read those particular books.
When I’m compiling these lists, though, I always seem to leave one name out; and if I’m honest, it’s simple snobbery that prompts me to do so. One wears one’s familiarity with the works of, say, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg or Gene Wolfe as a badge of honour. Enjoying highly-decorated, critically acclaimed authors imbues a sense of reflected glory on the reader – really, for doing nothing more than picking up and reading a book. A mere storyteller, though . . . well, now . . . that’s problematic; that requires a more delicate hand – the self-deprecating (although it’s actually author-deprecating) acknowledgement of a guilty pleasure.
Well, to hell with that. At the 43rd Worldcon, Aussiecon II, held in Melbourne in 1985, I was introduced to the works of one Jack L. Chalker – specifically, Midnight at the Well of Souls and Spirits of Flux and Anchor – and guess what? They were terrific. Absolutely great fun. I recall being more enthused by the Wellworld saga than the Soul Rider books – although perhaps it’s time I refreshed an almost-30-year-old memory now that we’ve made his titles available again – but I enjoyed them both immensely. Clarke’s Third Law is unashamedly deployed in lieu of having to work out any actual explanation for the Well World but it works (pun intended).
If you want a rollercoaster ride through an alien landscape as entertaining as it is implausible, I humbly submit our New Book of the Week, Midnight at the Well of Souls, as your passport to adventure. Chalker moves his plot and characters forward with an adept hand, with the likes of Nathan Brazil, Mavra Chang and Serge Ortega, especially, skilfully portrayed. As no less an authority than John Clute says in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:
Chalker was a novelist of considerable flair, with an ear acutely attuned to the secret dreams of freedom mortals tend to dream