One’s enjoyment of Well of Sorrows, by Benjamin Tate (pen name of Joshua Palmatier) will depend greatly on two issues: one’s patience for slowly developing stories and the amount of “fantasy” one is looking for in a fantasy novel. But by all means, give this book a try. It turned out to be one of my top ten fantasy reads of the year, though having been released in 2010 it can’t go on my official list for 2011. It can, however, go on my “Why do I start reading compelling series before they are completed; will I never learn?” list.
The story’s opening setting is Portstown, a “New World” colony still riven by old “Family” feuds from the mother kingdom across the ocean. In short order, things fall apart and after a quickly quelled riot (starkly, realistically violent and well-handled), the out-of-favor Families end up on a forced emigration, forming a wagon train heading out into the unexplored/unsettled plains. With them are the main characters — a young boy named Colin; his fiancée, Karen; his parents; and Walter, the local Lord’s son and representative, who has been brutally beating and tormenting Colin for some time back in Portstown. We follow their movement across new lands, past a geographic obstacle known as the Escarpment, and then we watch their first contact on the upper plains with several groups: first the Alvritshai, led by a young heir to one of their Houses, Aeren; then the Dwarren, and finally the horrifying Shadows.
After a surprisingly dark turn, the book skips ahead several decades to a transformed Colin, one now able to wield a form of magic associated with the titular Well, magic which has basically allowed him not to age but which has also come at some cost and possible threat to his humanity. Many of the characters from the first 200 pages are long gone (a real risk on Page’s part), though the Alvritshai being a long-lived race, Aeren is still alive and eventually becomes Colin’s close companion, blooming into a major character in his own right. The rest of the novel, another 300 pages or so, deals with two eventually intertwined issues: the hostile and combustible relations between the three races — humans, Dwarren, and Alvritshai — and the growing threat of the Shadows and Wraiths to all three races. A threat that few beside Colin seem willing to give credence to and a threat that Colin, thanks to his use of magic, is uniquely positioned to do something about, though not without personal cost.
That’s not a lot of detail, but I really don’t want to give much of the plot away. As mentioned above, you’ll need to be a patient reader for this one. This is a novel that really takes its time, unfolding slowly yet engrossingly. In its pacing, its level of detail, its quiet use of magic, Well of Sorrows reminded me a lot of some of Robin Hobb’s work (not in any derivative sense), which for me is great praise. I was pulled into the story from the start and while I recognized its slowness, I reveled in the pace rather than chafed at it. Not once did I feel the urge to skim or skip ahead; not once did I bemoan the lack of a stronger-minded editor. It was a long, slow book and it was just as long and slow as it needed to be. I wouldn’t be shocked to find some people, maybe even a lot, thinking it too slow, but definitely give it some time to see if its pace wins you over.
The other possible issue for some fantasy fans is the delayed arrival of the “fantasy” aspect and the relatively restrained amount of “fantasy.” Until one meets the Shadows, almost 200 pages in, it may as well be an alternative historical novel retelling the story of Jamestown (not literally or exactly, just the basic idea) and then the story of the Oregon Trail. Even then, and even with Colin’s transformation into one who can wield powerful magic, the fantastic elements remain light. The Dwarren are obviously dwarf-like (smaller of stature, living underground), but they are not dwarves. The Alvritshai have Elvish aspects (taller than humans, longer-lived), but they are not elves. Tate has taken the racial tropes and put his own spin on them, making them feel wholly original and separate and their placement in the New World setting increases that sense of originality. Colin’s magic is a bit vague (purposely so, I’d say, as more gets explained in book two), but what we see is relatively unique, involving not just some potency against the shadows (the more common sort of fantasy magic), but observation and eventually manipulation of time, albeit it in quite constrained fashion.
Eventually the magic gets ramped up, we get a battle or two, but a lot of the story deals with political intrigue and maneuvering. The major goal turns out to be the prevention of a battle rather than leading us to the same old climactic battle scene, and the magic-user mostly tries his best to avoid using magic. It’s a light, restrained overlay of fantasy and a refreshingly enjoyable approach.
The characters are mostly well drawn and if there isn’t a lot of change in them, I’d say it’s not for lack of good characterization but mostly due to the slow pace. What does change, though, are the relationships among characters, again at a slow but realistic pace. The cultural details are plentiful and make the different races and characters feel fully formed and realistic, as do their interactions with each other. Finally, while there aren’t a lot of lines you’ll linger over for their stylistic panache, the prose is smooth, precise, and mostly effortless with some nice descriptive lines throughout. Dialogue is probably the weakest aspect of the novel; it isn’t bad, but it doesn’t crackle.
The main storyline is resolved, but ends with an obvious lead into the next book, Leaves of Flame, due out in January 2012. While this second book isn’t quite as good as Well of Sorrows (there are more pacing issues), it’s still quite strong and the latter third just as good. If you start Well of Sorrows now, you can pick up Leaves of Flame when it’s released right after the holidays. Both are highly recommended. According to his website, book three will be entitled Breath of Heaven. I wish I already had it in hand.