Jack L. Chalker has written nearly as many series (11) as he has stand-alone novels (12). A Jungle of Stars (Nov 1976) was his freshman novel but was quickly followed by his sophomore novel and most well known work, Midnight at the Well of Souls (Jul 1977). More than a year later, Chalker would write the sequel, Exiles at the Well of Souls (Sep 1978) along with another in 1978, two more in 1980, and two much later novels in 1999 and 2000.
I first read Chalker in 2008 with his Rings of the Master quadrilogy (1986-1988). Basically, Midnight at the Well of Souls follows the same formula as the Rings of the Master series—group of characters find themselves on a quest for an artifact and undergo physical transformations along the way. It’s a generic summary but it fits both—this book and the latter series—to a “T.”
Rear cover synopsis:
“Who was Nathan Brazil… and what was he doing on the Well World?
Entered by a thousand unsuspected gateway—built by a race lost in the clouds of time—the planet its dwellers called the Well World turned being of every kind into something else. There spacefarer Nathan Brazil found himself companioned by a batman, an amorous female centaur and a mermaid—all once as human as he.
Yet Nathan Brazil’s metamorphosis was more terrifying than any of those… and his memory was coming back, bringing with it the secret of the Well World.
For at the heart of the bizarre planet lay the goal of every being that had ever lived—and Nathan Brazil and his comrades were… lucky?... enough to find it!”
The planet of Dalgonia was otherwise barren and desolate, if it weren’t for the enigmatic ruins of the alien race—the Markovians—dead for a million years without a trace of artifact beside their crust-thick planet-wide computer of unknown capacity. The hexagonal mystery of the city’s layout is pondered upon by researcher Skander, but its his mathematician Varnett who discovers the breakthrough in understanding the computer’s nature. Skander’s greed for power drives him to murder the other crew and chase after Varnett, who both soon find themselves at the foot of a giant portal to another dimension.
Nathan Brazil and his freighter passengers are on a long haul trip when an emergency beacon beckons them to the planet of Dalgonia. The diverse passengers, ranging from the cloned Confederacy diplomatic envoy to the forced-addict farmer, descend to the planet to investigate the murder of the scientific crew. Their search takes them to the same area as the hidden portal where they are also transferred to same dimension.
Received by a 6-armed muscular snake isn’t the warmest greeting, but when that same creature knows Nathan by name, the lot of them settle down to absorb the confounding truth of where they have found themselves—the Zone is a reception level for people (aliens or humans) who stumble upon the Markovians’ hidden portals. The reception level gives access to the greater mystery—a planet plated with 1,560 hexagons, where each hexagonal tract of land is dedicated to a different species of alien. Once through the access portal, each of them will be transformed into a phenotype which corresponds to their respective attitudes and behaviors.
The four passengers are transformed into a mermaid researcher, a centaur wallflower, a photosynthetic creature who also researches, and an insectile servant while Nathan, himself, remains human, whose species had recently undergone extinction in their hexagonal habitat. Nathan seeks out the other passengers and slowly discovers that he knows more about the odd planet than he first thought—something is familiar, something which may explain his immortality.
One collection of passengers, now planet-fallen and physically diverse, is rounded up my Nathan and aim to approach the equator which is host to a towering divide between the hemispheres and may be part of the mystery involved in the ubiquitous casual mention of Well of Souls across every language. Another entourage is gathered by the menacing insectile servant, whose goal is to also reach the equator for the purpose of power. Each pilgrimage is composed of diverse phenotypes and their respective trek to the equator takes them through terrain which is equally as diverse as their physical composition. Nathan, having been given human body, thought himself lucky… until he was transformed into an antelope, a circumstance which proved have its benefits and its drawbacks.
The start of the novel was exciting with a strong start in the fiction universe portrayed by Chalker. Of minor interest was the human universe of Confederate genetic engineering, its complacent members of society, and the erroneous supposition that even the leaders are aligned to their genetic vocational disposition. The brief coverage of the archeological excavation of the alien culture was pivotal in introducing the reader to the mysteries which lie deeper inside Midnight at the Well of Souls, but soon the focus is taken off the aliens and spotted onto the diversity within the portal.
Even the transition to the exotic hexagonal-plated planet was momentous, but eventually the randomness of metamorphoses and diversity become more about quantity than quality. Too many ideas can be a bad thing, especially when the science fiction element begins to accrue a Tolkien fantasy element with centaurs, Faeries, magic spells, and instant transformations. Chalker does a weak job of convincing the reader of the science basis behind such magic, but then again Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” comes to mind. This is hard to digest when the border region between fantasy and science fiction is so slim, yet it’s completely up to the author to bridge the gap between technology and magic. Unfortunately, it feels like Chalker’s love of fantasy got the best of him.
Chalker tries to build a romance story out of Nathan’s natural superiority and Wu Julee’s forced inferiority. I understand Julee’s desire to be drawn to the man of power, but Nathan’s sympathetic attachment to Julee adopts more perversity than it does love. If Julee is such a victim of lust and power, why would Nathan want to project the same attributes of lust and power on his idea of a victim-cum-lover? The situation becomes increasing odd when the Julee’s centaur manifestation coincides with Nathan’s ascent to his antelope state… their mutual quadapedal bodily configuration quickly invites another rather convenient state of arousal—an altogether rather bizarre sex scene.
As stated above, the Chalker’s inclusion of Faeries and magic is a very quick turn off for someone who dislikes Tolkien fantasy, like myself. Right then, the book hovered around the 2.5-star mark as I waited for a decent attempt at explaining the lame inclusion. Coming to the conclusion, enough evidence was given to partly convince me of the technological prowess of the hexagonal-plated planet but I thought that simply excluding the fantasy-like elements would have proved to be a stronger mention.
The ultimate plot conclusion is too grand, too exploitive to feel satisfactory, almost as if the single sweep of the conclusions finality can provide all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. As for the personal conclusions for each character, the wishes granted seem fitting yet reflect some sexism on Chalker’s part. Where the women were once forcibly docile, their “magic” freedom comes at the cost of shrugging off their former burdens for the convenience of their newly found metamorphosis… it’s cheap to see their docility change simply because their bodily form had changed.
So, Midnight at the Well of Souls was rather well done but failed to really entice me to read any of the sequels. I mean, this novel was pretty well nip and tuck at the conclusion that I’d hate to see any of it complicated or deteriorated or buffed to a shine with any sequel. I don’t think the Well of Souls series was actually meant to be a series like the obvious Rings of the Master initiation in the first book, Lords of the Middle Dark (1986). Just taking a look at the covers of the proceeding novels in the series is enough to turn me off to them. I may be turned off of Chalker for a while unless something honestly strikes me as something non-formulaic to the characters-on-a-quest paint-by-numbers plot.