Mind you, the ideas in the novel are intriguing. The concept of the Well World, for example, is fairly original and has a lot of potential for easily delving into many different cultures and alien races. Unfortunately, the idea is not explored nearly as well as it could be, and is really only a superficial device to serve the plot... such as it is. The different alien cultures and races of the Well World are only explored thinly, with no sense of richness or history in it. The different races seem to be created for their wierdness factor than any actual examination of different cultures.
What's worse is the story itself isn't all that great. Remove the concept of the Well World, and you have a fairly standard quest framework. The main character has a "mysterious" (but rather predictable) origin, but his personality is still a carbon-copy hero from any swashbuckling space opera. Think Han Solo and you've pretty much nailed him. The other characters only seem to act as foils for how his story is told. Throw in some alien sex here and there, a standard "universal translator" device to get over the problem of different languages, and end with a very predictable conclusion, and what the story amounts to is... not much.
Without the concept behind the story, it's really pretty bland. The plot moves along sluggishly, with several blatantly obvious passages of exposition masked as character dialogue. I found a scene near the end, in which the characters are travelling down an extremely long moving walkway to their destination, especially annoying in this regard. There was no good reason for the walkway to be there, and it had already established that such clunky transportation was unnecessary on the Well World. The only reason for it to be there was so the main characters (and the reader) could be told what was going on up to that point. This passage was perhaps the worst example of several similar parts of the novel, in which story exposition is dealt with in an exceptionally clumsy way.
Chalker's writing style leaves much to be desired as well. His use of language is minimal and not suggestive at all of the weight he attempted to give the subject matter. Dialogue was essentially the same from one character to another, with none of the usual language markers to differentiate different people or different groups (this goes to the lack of cultural depth in the book discussed earlier). The characters lacked any feeling of honest emotion, such that I didn't connect with any of them at all.
For an idea with so much potential, this book was really lacking in so many ways. It was vaguely entertaining in some parts, but overall felt poorly-written and trite. Chalker's treatment of a good idea ended up very broad but also very superficial, only scratching the surface of the story's potential. I would love to see an idea like the Well World given a proper treatment by a better writer, one with a talent for how to craft alien worlds and different cultures with some sense of validity and history. Without that, a book like this just falls flat.
I won't be keeping this one, and I do not recommend it, unless you're into shallow, poorly-written science fiction.
Other reviews will give you the plot in more detail. I simply want to recommend Chalker the writer. I've read pretty much everything he's published and I always look forward to his new books. This, though, is certainly one of his greatest. It's a great shame that mainstream SF critics have ignored or impugned his work because it's as good or better than a lot of the dross that's out there (and I include some of the so-called masterworks that have been swathed in awards). Thankfully he has a loyal legion of fans that have followed his career.
And this is also a great prequel to the War of the Well which is told the four volumes that followed this one. You don't have to read them all, as this a stand alone novel, but if you enjoy this one as much as so many others have then you'll certainly want to read more about Well World and the War of the Well novels are also superior entertainment on a large scale.
Basically, try anything of Jack Chalker's. He's an underrated master of the fantasy/sf genre.
Look also for The Four Lords of the Diamond series, The Rings of the Master series, the Dancing Gods novels and his lone short story collection, Dance Band on the Titanic.
The War of the Well is told in Exiles at the Well of Souls, Quest for the Well of Souls, The Return of Nathan Brazil and Twilight at the Well of Souls.
Dont wait. Go seek them out. You won't be disappointed.
This story could be set in the far future -- or a parallel one. Read more