I first became aware of Benjamin Tate from a guest blog post over on Jim Hines’ website. A couple weeks later, I saw him at one of the Boskone panels I was at. I made it a point to pick up books by the panelists when I was there but my copy of Well of Sorrows sat on my shelf for a little while. I never should have let it sit that long.
Let’s go with a back of the book kind of summary… In fact, I think I’m going to actually quote it today.
Colin Harten and his parents had fled across the ocean to escape the Family wars in Andover and find a better life. But the New World proved no haven for the Hartens and their fellow refugees. Forced to undertake an expedition to the unexplored plains east of the newly settled coastal cities, the Hartens and their companions were not prepared for the dangers they would face.
Pursued by plains dwellers known as the dwarren, the Hartens’ wagon train fled to the very edge of a dark forest — a place they had been warned to avoid at all costs by a small band of Alvritshai warriors, the first race they had encountered on the plains.
Colin survived the perils of the forest, rescued by spirits of Light and transformed by the power of the Well of Sorrows, but he paid a very high price. For drinking the Lifeblood — the waters of the Well — changed Colin into something not entirely human… into someone who might prove the only defense against the dark spirits of the forest and the Wraiths they had created to destroy the humans, dwarren and Alvritshai alike.
I’ll admit, I’ve been … less than motivated with traditional fantasy for the last few years. I was saturated it when I was a kid reading all sorts of this stuff I ganked from my parents written in the 80s and 90s. It kinda became done for me a few years ago. I still poke at it now and again but other than GRRM, I actually had to go back and look at my list of Sixty-Four from last year to see what my last actual fantasy book was. (Sam Sykes, Scott Lynch and GRRM were the only ones last year) But the back of the book blerb here doesn’t make it sound too traditional right? Not overly, it came off as a paranormal-ish to me and there certainly was an important element of that in the book but holy crap I should have paid more attention to the Midwest Book Review quote underneath it where it says the words “strong thriller.”
Well of Sorrows is a fantasy thriller.
All the things that you normally associate with fantasy books are there but there’s this intense world building that makes the focus of the story turn into something more like a … well.. a thriller. If you took Well of Sorrows and stripped the fantasy tropes out of it, the book would still stand up on its own. Dress it up differently and you could make the same story historical fiction or sci fi, hell you could dress it up as modern political thing. The meat and potatoes of Well has this universal story sort of feel going for it that I love. It’s the sort of thing that says to me “This character and plot are strong enough to carry this without any gimmicks, they’re not dependent on their setting.”
That’s not to say the setting is lacking at all. The world building in this is top tier stuff. I see so much potential is off hand mentions. The town Colin settles in on page one is Portstown. There’s very much an American Colonies kind of vibe to the Provinces but the homeland has a very Italian feel. Colin’s family is fleeing feuding among the Families who are fighting over something called the Rose which has religious-magical implications. Right off the bat, I liked that touch of familiarity mixed up with something else. The whole thing with the Rose and what’s going on with the mainland causes what goes on with the Provinces but never fully explained. This isn’t a negative since the Why’s aren’t the story of Wells. The Rose and the mainland are just the catalyst and would get too tangential, although it is a story I would like to know. There’s a whole history to this world going on here we’re not seeing and even though we’re not seeing it, it’s difference is felt and highly positive.
The dwarren and Alvritshai get similar treatment, although we see more of the Alvritshai. When these races first showed up on Colin’s trek into the plains it’s easy to go “yup, dwarves and elves.” They’re really not though. Tate took the same kind of “start off with something familiar and mix it up” tone with the races. You can’t call the Alvritshai elves even though they are tall, live long lives and don’t reproduce fast. The stock Tolkienesque races were modded up into their own fully formed creations and having read so much of those stock cultures, this was eminently satisfying.
The combat, when it does show up, is not the point of this book so don’t expect GRRM style brutality here. It gets the job done. Like I said, this is almost a political thriller racing to form alliances and create peace rather than grind their enemies into dirt. There are two Book Throwing Moments. It’s a term coined by my mom because she found a moment so intense in a book, she actually threw it across the room. I’d say about one in six, if that, has a Book Throwing Moment in it. I can count on one hand how many I’ve found this year so far. Well of Sorrows has two. Pages 212 and 471. If I’ve ever come across anything with two Book Throwing Moments in them, I can’t think of it, which means I probably haven’t because I would remember the hell out of that. My Shelf of Honor books, the small pile of my most favorite and revered books, don’t even all contain Book Throwing Moments.
Well of Sorrows has exceeded my expectations to the point where I officially dub this book Shelf of Honor worthy to sit next to the likes of Zelazny, China Mieville and Scott Lynch.