But you said that Lord Mabreton is loyal to the Shield. Why place a spy on him?
The Shield rejoices in Lord Mabreton’s loyalty, Your Highness. He rejoices in it so much that he never tires of receiving constant proof of it.
-Prince Dagnarus of Vinnengael and Silwyth of House Kinnoth
Weis and Hickman have put together a book very different than their usual fantasy fare. In fact, in some ways, they turn some of the general fantasy conventions into very different things. Imagine a land where dwarves are not the mountain people obsessed with gold, but as a race that plans to eventually rule the world (although they aren’t in any hurry) and travel as master horsemen. A land where orken are a race of highly superstitious sailors who respect strength as well as cunning. A land where elves are prolific breeders in spite of their long life-spans, who believe that even showing an emotion on their own faces would invade the life of another. Humanity, on the other hand, continues to be the mixed bag. This is the land of Loerem, and the setting of Well of Darkness.
It also manages to be a little different in that in most fantasy books, the protagonists would be considered the villains. It matches up an unlikely duo. Young Gareth, cursed with a rather significant birthmark, enters into the royal household of King Tamaros as the whipping boy for Prince Dagnarus, the second son of the king. Dagnarus is…well, let’s just say that he’s not the nicest person around. Then again, perhaps it’s understandable-he’s the son of the king’s second wife, and the first son-Helmos-is everything a king would want in a son. While Tamaros doesn’t neglect Dagnarus, the boy nonetheless feels a great deal of jealousy and envy. Worse, he wants to be the king, which would require that Helmos be removed.
The pot gets stirred when talk of war between races goes around the court. In an effort to unify all the races of the land peacefully, King Tamaros appeals to the gods, and their answer is the Sovereign Stone. The king gives a piece to a representative of each race, keeping one for humanity. In the process, however, he inadvertently reveals a dark aspect to the gift of the gods to the last person he’d want to learn it. And that drives the remainder of the book.
Well of Darkness has some of the classic trappings of fantasy, in spite of turning things on their head a bit. There’s jealous rivalries, there are champions of good and evil (that’s really evil), there’s doomed romances, and terrible sacrifices. There’s some interesting characters as well-the elf Silwyth, who’s a nasty piece of work, as well as Dunner, one of the dwarven Unhorsed-a dwarf crippled and so is looked upon with nothing but pity amongst his race. Helmos and Tamaros are, perhaps, too good for the world, as they have the noblest of intentions.
We get some neat concepts thrown in, too. The Portals that allow the races to actually perform trade with each other even though thousands of miles separate them. The Dominion Lords, champions of the gods, and the Transfiguration they must undergo after a series of tests. And the Vrykyl, who are really nasty, created as the dark side of the Dominion Lords. And best of all, gods who try very hard not to meddle-who indeed see the races as children who have yet to learn not to play with dangerous toys.
Really, though, the stars of the book are Dagnarus and Gareth. Dagnarus is the big mover in the story, as his desires are what drives the plot along. Gareth is his willing ally, even though he was originally brought in to serve as a living lesson for the prince. The two work together over the years to become…. Well, I can’t really give everything away, now, can I?
This book sets the tone neatly for the next book in the Sovereign Stone trilogy, while remaining a fairly self-contained story all by itself, which is one of the reasons I liked it. I’m a big fan of books that end a story, even though there are remaining questions to be answered. In that, Well of Darkness succeeds admirably.