Del Rey Fantasy, 1984, 263 pages
Joe and Marge, minutes away from death, are rescued and brought from Earth to the magical world of Husaquahr by the wizard Throckmorton P. Ruddygore to battle the forces of Hell itself!
Marge and Joe, a trucker and a woman on the run, find themselves at a literal ferry crossing, where they meet a fat, bearded wizard named Ruddygore, who gives them the classic call to adventure, layered with a bit more metaphysics. Chalker builds his alternate world with a story about heaven and hell and how the magical fantasy world of Husaquahr was built as a sort of prototype for the "real" world, Earth. Ruddygore needs a couple of adventurers from Earth to help prevent the Dark Baron from conquering Husaquahr, which hell will then use as a beachhead from which to launch an invasion of Earth.
Upon arrival, they are literally transformed into epic fantasy tropes. Joe becomes a brawny, iron-thewed barbarian warrior complete with a magic sword (named Irving!), and Marge becomes a half-naked elfin witch. The two of them go through a quick training period, then acquire a group of companions to accompany them on their quest, which involves a Circe-like sorceress who transforms men into animals, swordfights in a mountain pass, a dragon with neuroses about virgins, a genie in a magic lamp, and finally, a big staged battle between fantasy armies.
Readers who enjoyed Piers Anthony's Xanth series, before it descended into collections of puns for thirteen-year-old girls, will probably enjoy this book, and also recognize that same leering tone that the author tries to pass off as humor but always seems to be skirting the fine line between saucy and skeevy.
The River of Dancing Gods is part traditional portal-epic fantasy, part satire of that genre.
Ruddygore turned to Marge. "You realize, of course, that you're almost more in a state of undress than dress. That's what Joe was talking about."
"Well, yeah, but...Oh, those books again."
Ruddygore nodded. "Volume 46 is mostly concerned with appearances. Page 119, section 34(a)—'Weather and climate permitting, all beautiful young women will be scantily clad.' It's as simple as that."
She just stared at him.
Chalker probably had fun writing this, but in his self-aware parody, he sometimes comes off as trying a little too hard to convince us it's all a joke. "See, the bit about beautiful women walking around half-naked, it's in the Rules!" Yeah, okay Jack, I get it, you're being totally subversive. Har har.
This is a classic, cliche-heavy epic fantasy, but the twist is that it's deliberately and intentionally so — when the angels created Husaquahr, they did so with a book of Rules governing every aspect of their artificial creation. The Council of wizards added to the collection, until it became an immense legal code, but with the power to actually dictate reality, specifying everything from how wishes work to the properties of magic swords to the attire of beautiful young women. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from these Rules, so we are continually reminded that there's a reason for the cliches.
And here's how it ends:
He sighed. "Remember back at the start of this thing? Remember, Marge, when you labeled it the start of an epic?"
She chuckled. "Yes, I remember. I didn't know how true that was when I joked about it."
"You still don't," he told her. "The Books of Rules, Volume 16, page 103, section 12(d)."
"Yeah? So what's that crazy set say about us?" Joe wanted to know.
"All epics must be at least trilogies," Ruddygore replied, and laughed and laughed and laughed...
Har har har. (The Dancing Gods series in fact went on for five volumes.)
Verdict: This book is a product of and a commentary on its time, the 80s boom in extruded epic fantasy product. Jack Chalker is always an entertaining author — he's written two of my favorite SF series: Well World and the Quintara Marathon. But this series was not his best work. The River of Dancing Gods is a fun, light read that takes a self-aware poke at its genre, but much of it felt like Chalker was just kind of filling space by telling us what happened between the scenes he really wanted to write. 6/10.
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