Well of Sorrows

Benjamin Tate's shallow well of good intentions

Cover to Well of Sorrows, by Benjamin TateWell Of Sorrows
By Benjamin Tate
(DAW Books, May 3, 2011
Paperback: 560 pages
ISBN-10: 075640665X
ISBN-13: 978-0756406653

Despite the contempt in which the genre is often held, fantasy is probably the most difficult literary field in which to do really good work. Not only must the writer create characters and plot, they must also create a self-consistent, entirely imaginary setting in which those characters and that plot can exist: a world, or what Tolkien called a sub-creation.

Ideally, this other world will be so fully-rendered the reader will not only suspend disbelief, but will believe, will in a very real sense, enter that world, will visit that sub-creation, as many of us have tarried, for example, in worlds as disparate as Tolkien's own vast and multi-faceted Middle Earth to Mervyn Peake's claustrophobic Castle Gormenghast.

This is escape in the best sense of the term; those who scoff at such escapism often than not resemble jailors more than anything else. (The thought is not original to me. If you have not had the pleasure, allow me to point you toward's Tolkien's remarkable essay, On Fairy Stories, available in The Tolkien Reader, and elsewhere.) It is an escape into the other, rather than from from the "real world". Those of us who find joy in visiting Middle Earth most often are also happy to come home to our own world again. The escape that fantasy offers is the escape of discovery and exploration. But I digress.

The point is, a successful fantasy must include all those elements required by fiction set in the here and now, and a great deal more. In particular, its sub-creation must be every bit as convincing, as real, as that of a novel set in, say, Russia during the Napoleonic wars.

Unfortunately, and despite the writer's undeniably admirable ambitions, my latest foray into the genre, Benjamin Tate's Well of Sorrows, is another disappointment. Indeed, this novel is one that doesn't manage to attain even mediocrity. Its geography is bland, poorly delineated and unconvincing; its multiple societies — human and otherwise — are nearly indistiguishable beneath their cliché'd surface trappings; and its characters struggle to achieve even a single dimension.

Worse, the book suffers from a structure that suggets Tate changed his mind about the story he was telling one third of the way through, at which point its first 175 or so pages are essentially thrown away; what started as a bildungsroman becomes something else entirely, with only the most tenuous connection to that in which came before.

The problems start on page 1, with the book's very first sentence: "Colin saw Walter's foot a moment before it connected with his stomach."

Yes, the prose is awkward, but the real problem is with the names and what they show about the world-building to come. Names like Colin and Walter (and later, Karen, among others), sound jarringly contemporary and carry with them all manner of historical and cultural baggage that ties them to our world and our time and place. In no way do they suggest the reader has entered some other world; indeed, I spent the first few pages wondering when Colin would stumble upon a magic wardrobe or a Tardis before it became clear he was already in another world, albeit one with all the verisimilitude of a second-grader's diorama.

By the time, a few pages in, we learn something about Colin's time and place, we do so courtesy of an info-dump that is frankly painful to read, and which accurately foreshadows the level of prose, of dialogue and characterizations to come.

"Yeah, go back west, back across the Arduon Ocean, back to the Bontari family and the Court and their goddamned war." Colin began sobbing. He couldn't stop it, no matter how hard he clenched his teeth. Keeping his eyes tight, he listened as the gang shuffled around, Brunt withdrawing, his feet scuffing the dirt of the alley, kicking it up into Colin's face. Snot clogged Colin's nose, and he began breathing through his mouth in harsh exhalations. He listened to the gang chuckling, listened to see if they were going to kick him more, or punch him, or pinch him as they'd done before. [...]

"Listen, pissant," [Walter] hissed. "Portstown belongs to us, to the Carrente family. We were here first. Our grandfathers crossed the Arduon and settled the damn town, and we don't want any of you refugees here screwing the place up, especially Bontari refugees." He twisted the Bontari family name with derision, with cold hatred. "So crawl back to your pissant parents in that hovel you refugees have built over in Lean-to and tell them to get the hell out of our town."

The words come from the mouth of a teenage boy, leaden and pedestrian and utterly unconvincing. But it it is the incongruous admixture of English- and Italian-sounding names that betrays just how shallow is Tate's world-building. Much later, the reader will encounter two non-human societies, complete with exotic names, but neither will seem remotely alien, just as none of the characters we encounter will ring any more true.

As I said above, the first section has all the trappings of a coming-of-age tale, complete with budding romance and an apprenticeship, as Colin's father teaches him to wield a sling. The latter is given such prominence that his skill with the weapon is obviously going to have some future significance — except that it that it never does. Along with everything else, it is more or less thrown away in favour of sixty years later ...

That kind of transition can work — just about anything can be made to work in skilled hands — but it does not work here. Colin is a type in the book's opening section, not a character — an angry teenage boy with a heart of gold. And, 60 years later, he has become a bland combination of saint and super-hero.

Colin spent those 60 years near the book's titular well, cared for by "spirits of Light" and transformed by LifeBlood, while utterly cut of from human-kind. Now endowed with Magic Powers, he can control his apparent age, travel in time and slow down the present (or else, like The Flash, move really, really, quickly).

For no reason that resonates with the reader, Magic Colin decides that 60 years is enough and returns to the, vastly changed, human world. There he is quickly involved in a complex but uninteresting war among humans, the Alvritshai (who remind me too much of Tolkien's elves for comfort) and the equally Tolkienesque underground-living Dwarren.

I say the Alvritshai and Dwarren remind me of Tolkien's creations, but the resemblance is purely superficial. In truth, both societies feel like rough sketches of archaic human societies, a vaguely feudal order in the former case, and noble savages in the latter. As for the (mostly) new characters — to whom we are introduced as we had already met them and should, therefore, welcome them as old friends — none possess any more depth than the societies from which we are told they have sprung.

I did say that Benjamin Tate was working hard to do something different with Well of Sorrows, to tell a story that hasn't been told, and re-told and told again (and again). His intentions are clear in the battle scenes that strive not to glorify warfare, but to emphasize its horrors, and in Colin's role as peace-maker rather than warrior.

But those good intentions in no way make up for the shoddy world-building, the paper-thin characterizations, or for a story that doesn't seem to know what kind of tale its author wants to tell.

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