A number of other reviewers have made the obvious comparison to Xanth, and they're right - this first book in a prolonged series reads very much like a slightly more mature Piers Anthony novel. But only slightly. The River of Dancing Gods is part traditional portal-epic fantasy, part satire of that genre. Chalker must have had a lot of fun writing this, but in his self-aware parody, he sometimes comes off as trying a little too hard to convince us it's all a joke. "See, the bit about beautiful women walking around half-naked, it's in the Rules!" Yeah, okay Jack, I get it, you're being totally subversive. Har har.
Marge and Joe, a trucker and a woman on the run, find themselves at a literal ferry crossing, where they meet an enormously-girthed wizard named Ruddygore who gives them the classic call to adventure, layered with a bit more metaphysics. Chalker builds his alternate world with a story about heaven and hell and how the magical fantasy world of Husaquahr was built as a sort of prototype for the "real" world, Earth. Ruddygore needs a couple of adventurers from Earth, for rather obscure reasons that aren't completely explained in this book, to help prevent the Dark Baron from conquering Husaquahr, which hell will then use as a beachhead from which to launch an invasion of Earth.
Upon crossing over, Joe becomes a brawny, iron-thewed barbarian warrior complete with a magic sword, and Marge becomes a half-naked elfin witch. The two of them go through a quick training period, then acquire a group of companions to accompany them on their quest, which involves a Circe-like sorceress who transforms men into animals, some battles with enemy soldiers in the mountains, a neurotic dragon, a genie in a magic lamp, and finally, a big staged battle between fantasy armies.
This is a classic, cliche-heavy epic fantasy, but the twist is that it's deliberately and intentionally so - when the angels created Husaquahr, they did so with a book of Rules concerning how magic and quests and everything else were supposed to work. Then a Council of wizards took over the job, and like all bureaucracies, has added to it over time until now the Rules are an immense library governing everything from genies to magic swords to barbarian heroes to the attire of beautiful young women. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from these Rules, so we are continually reminded that there's a reason for the cliches.
And here's how it ends:
He sighed. “Remember back at the start of this thing? Remember, Marge, when you labeled it the start of an epic?”
She chuckled. “Yes, I remember. I didn’t know how true that was when I joked about it.”
“You still don’t,” he told her. “The Books of Rules, Volume 16, page 103, section 12(d).”
“Yeah? So what’s that crazy set say about us?” Joe wanted to know.
“All epics must be at least trilogies,” Ruddygore replied, and laughed and laughed and laughed…
This book was fun, light reading, though were some passages where it felt like Chalker was just kind of filling space by telling us what happened between the scenes he really wanted to write. The worldbuilding hints at a bit more complexity than is immediately apparent, but nothing like his Well World or Quintara Marathon series. This is basically a book that's a product of its time, the 80s boom in epic fantasy of indifferent quality, and while Chalker is always an entertaining author, this series was probably not his best work. The first book was okay, but I'm not really motivated to read the rest.