Jack L. Chalker is probably most famous for the Well World Series, which consisted of ten novels written over the course of 17 years. And while it was through the first several novels of that series that I first began reading Jack L. Chalker, I didn’t become a squeeing fanboy of his work until I read a different series, beginning with The River of the Dancing Gods, either late in 1985 or early 1986. The book was published in ‘84, but I didn’t read it until a friend was going on and on about it, being surprised that I hadn’t read it, as it was the sort of thing he would expect me to love.
So I borrowed his copy of it and blew off homework one night to stay up all night reading the novel.
I really liked it.
The premise of all of the Dancing Gods books is that when god created the world as we know it, there was an unintentional echo. A parallel Earth, if you will, though it was a bit messed up. For whatever reason, the Creator let his messengers, the Angels, take control of this unintended echo universe, and they began trying to clean up its broken laws of physics and so forth. The Angels did this by writing down rules of how reality should work each time they encountered an anomaly. These rules eventually became a giant encyclopedia of rules, and mortals living in this parallel world who studied the rules could become wizards and perform magic. Unfortunately, at the same time, Demons were trying to subvert the Angels’ efforts, so the war between Heaven and Hell spread to a new battleground.
All this this is something that the reader learns during the middle of the book. This back story isn’t how things start. No, things start with a woman named Marge in our world, who has leapt from the car being driven by her abusive boyfriend, and finds herself walking along a long stretch of Texas highway. Then a truck driver named Joe stops to offer her a ride, but then there are both who confronted on an unfamiliar stretch of highway by a man who looks like Santa Claus dressed in a very elaborate Victorian suit. The man introduces himself as Throckmorton P. Ruddygore, wizard, and explains that in about 18 minutes Marge and Joe are going to die in a horrible accident. Unless they allow Ruddygore to transport them to his world, where they will become epic heroes and have the opportunity to thwart an Apocalypse.
Marge and Joe agree, and they are transported across the Sea of Dreams to the other world, were each of them begins a process of being transformed into a heroic archetype that can take on the evil which threatens the world.
The River of the Dancing Gods is a book that defies categories. Looked at from one angle, it is a portal fantasy (characters from our world go through a magical portal to a fantastical world), but from just a very slightly different angle it is a standard epic fantasy (story set in a world unlike our own where epic events that change that world forever occur). Except from a very slightly different perspective it is a parody of an epic fantasy. Or, if you tilt your head a little in a different direction, it looks like a deconstruction of each of those things.
Joe and Marge undergo a physical transformation when they cross into Ruddygore’s world. Then they spend some time being trained for their roles as Barbarian Warrior and Mysterious Sorceress respectively. And during the training is where we start to learn about all those rules written by the Angels. Most of the ones we learn are based on trope of epic fantasy and sword & sorcery stories (particularly of the pulp era), such as “All fair maidens must dress as scantily as the weather allows,” or “Magic swords for quests must be named” or “Barbarians must be tall, dark, and handsome, exotic in race but of no known nationality.”
The book is written comedically, but only occasionally crosses the line into parody. It is clear that Chalker loved high fantasy and sword & sorcery tales, but he also loved a good laugh. Most of the jokes in the story are aimed at the ridiculousness of those tropes, or finding ways to make the incongruities that come to mind when you examine those tropes carefully into twists in the story.
The quest of the story seems straightforward enough: a mysterious evil sorcerer called the Dark Baron has gathered an army of goblins and other monsters and so forth and is almost certainly aligned with the forces of Hell and is out to conquer the world. While the rules limit the number of full-fledged mages in the world to 12, and it seems certain that the Dark Baron is one of the other eleven mages, Ruddygore hasn’t been able to determine which one the Dark Baron is, which complicates things a bit.
I had enjoyed the book so much, I was frankly a little worried to re-read it years later. I didn’t want to find chockful of problematic material that was so cringe worthy I couldn’t enjoy it. Fortunately, it wasn’t bad on more recent re-read. Marge has a bit more autonomy than the usual Fair Maiden in sword & sorcery tales, and at some crucial points Joe manages to rise above the usual limits of a dude with a sword. But there are other ways in which the story fails to transcend the typical problems of the sub-genre or its period. It also shares one issue that most of Chalker’s books have: he has a strange fascination with physical transformation, sometimes slipping into body horror in what would otherwise be funny books, and other times completely glossing over the traumatic effects of such transformations. It isn’t exactly problematic here, but as I recall it gets weird in one of the later books.
Really, the biggest disappointment was realizing that the scene that made me laugh out loud so long and hard that my side literally ached and I had tears running down my face isn’t in this book at all. A little research in the sequels turned up the scene I recall, so it is there, just not in this book. Which I think is actually a good thing. Too many sequels don’t live up to the first part of a series. If the funniest bit is yet to come, that’s a good thing.
To sum up, the story of The River of the Dancing Gods was very funny, and engaging enough that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Chalker was clearly having a very good time writing the book, and I think the reader enjoys the ride exactly as much as the author did. Which is a trick some writers don’t pull off very well. Re-reading it, I see the book has influenced my writing in ways that I hadn’t quite realized. Of course, during my 20s I read a whole lot of Chalker’s work, so it shouldn’t surprise me that some of his themes and quirks have slipped into my own writing.
I am looking forward to re-reading more books in this series.