Traditional Fantasy tends to fall into a few broad categories: there are the standard pseudo-Arthurian/Chivalry stories of knights; there are the Tolkien-esque quest stories of destroying an artifact or surmounting a great evil; there are the various ethnic folk tale types of story; and then there are those stpries that cannot be easily pigeonholed into one category or another. In some cases these stories are an amalgam of all these types of tale, and others the book is blazing a trail into a new area of the genre. Well of Souls by Benjamin Tate is one of the latter, a bold new adventure that does not properly fall into the handy descriptors one generally uses when discussing Fantasy.
Starting a story off with the protagonist getting the piss kicked out of him (literally), is not something that we see often in a story where the lead character is starting out at the age of 12, but while it is not unusual in and of itself, the reason for the beating is. You see, Colin Harten has recently arrived in the New World, a continent discovered on the other side of the Arduan Ocean from Colin's homeland of Andover, and he and his family are refugees fleeing trouble back home, like so many others. The main problem is that they are in a town run by a Family that is a rival of the Family that they served back home, and this means that work is scarce and there is a lot of discrimination to go around.
In spite of this inauspicious beginning, things quickly descend from bad to worse, and the next thing we know, the Harten Family is heading up a party of Settlers heading deeper into the unexplored inner continent. On their trek they are accompanied by a great cast of diverse and interesting characters, and we watch as the journey matures Colin, strains relationships, and throws Walter (Colin's young nemesis and bastard son of the mayor of the town where the story begins) from official leader of the expedition to irritating and loathed baggage. When the party of Settlers finally meet up with the local natives, battle ensues and Colin's life is forever changed.
Flash forward 60 years and the world has changed a great deal as Colin returns to find that the former provincial cities he knew as a 12 year old child have gained their independence. In addition, the horrifyingly brutal plainsmen and the strange friendly natives have been warring with each other and with the new kingdom unceasingly since. The friendly Alvritshai, who tried desperately to help Colin in the earlier stages of the book, turn out to have betrayed the human Kingdom after decimating the hordes of the Dwarren (the brutal plainsmen) in a great battle. Colin must help his friend, Aeren of the Alvritshai, to forge peace between the warring races as a great evil awakens to threaten all of them with utter annihilation.
Well, so we have all manner of story represented in Well of Souls. Amongst the Alvritshai we see the Chivalric, honor bound race of warriors, fighting against cruelty and barbarism in the form of the Dwarren. Amongst the Dwarren we see Fantasy more in keeping with the ethnic and primitivist styles, as we see a race that combines elements of Gallic culture with the Horse-culture of the Native Americans of the Great Plains. In the Human Kingdom we see the viciousness of personal and political infighting, as well as an analogue for the American Revolution and secession from the British Empire. In Colin's own story we see the traditional Artifact empowerment and addiction leading to the character teetering on the brink of need and desire to prevent that artifact from being turned to evil purposes. In addition to this, we have a Frontier adventure spirit in the book that is generally very rare in the realm of Fantasy, some genuinely horrifying moments with the Dwarren raids and the Shadows, and more than a few great political and inter-personal twists and betrayals.
Even if you do not like Fantasy, this book has a lot of appeal. Benjamin Tate takes a few seeds, plants them, and really nurtures them in a way that makes the book truly flower on its own. Great characters, smart dialogue, taut suspense, and some twists that the reader will definitely not see coming punctuate a book that demonstrates what a master storyteller can do with a great idea. Personally I am really looking forward to book two of the trilogy.
Pick up an autographed copy of Well of Souls at Borders Books and Music in Ramsey, NJ! It is well worth the money.