Well of Sorrows by Benjamin Tate

Wrath Suvane #1         
Published by DAW Books        
ISBN 978-0-7564-0665-3
Mass Market Paperback, April 2011                   
560 Pages

Review copy provided courtesy of the publisher, DAW Books


Colin Harten is a young boy whose parents live in the colony of Portstown, having left the New World from across the sea hoping to avoid the pending War looming over their homeland Andover.  Things haven’t worked out as well as the Harten family hoped; the Carrente family has a mafia-like hold over all the jobs in Portstown and the wayward son of the Lord of Portstown, Walter, also a Carrente, tortures and gives Colin regular beatings. It is in the midst of one of these beatings where Benjamin Tate (the open pseudonym for Joshua Palmatier) opens Well of Sorrows, the first in the Wrath Suvane fantasy series. 

Things go from bad to mildly hopeful when Colin’s father teaches the young boy how to use a sling to defend himself.  When Colin confronts Walter and his gang of rouges, he gains a minor victory only to be arrested and grouped in with a bunch of insurgents who started a riot at the docks where Colin’s father is a day worker struggling to get a steady job.  As a result of his incarceration and the Lord’s intimations, Colin’s father agrees to help lead a group of families out of the settled area in order to gain Colin’s freedom.  Of course, the individual put in charge of the caravan is Walter, Colin’s nemesis.  The only true brightspot for Colin during this first chunk of the book is his growing relationship with a girl name Karen, who, as they set out on their pilgrimage, becomes his betrothed.

The dangers of the unsettled lands are many, as several pilgrimages have been made by citizens of Portstown with none of those pilgrimages returning.  The Harten family and their expedition come into full contact with these dangers – the Alvritshai (Tate’s version of elves), the dwarren (Tate’s version of dwarves), and the most horrifying of all, Shadows and Wraiths.  What happens is nothing short of catastrophe, permanently scarring and transforming Colin into something…other.  From that point, Tate takes a more standard approach to his fantasy story.

Tate does a lot of things with practiced and honed skill in Well of Sorrows – the character of Colin is fully realized, plausible, and sympathetic.  By introducing him getting his ass kicked, it immediately builds sympathy for his plight, which is enhanced as his family and surroundings are introduced.  I found myself rooting for Colin to get revenge on his bully tormentor Walter.  I’ve had my own experiences being bullied, though not to the violent extremes as Colin experienced, so it was fairly easy to put myself in his shoes.  Colin’s father, Tom, comes across as proud, strong-willed, aggressive, though his concern for Colin balances his character nicely.  Walter is a bit more than a one-note bully, though Tate doesn’t get too much into his head.  This is fine, because Colin couldn’t (or wouldn’t) want to get into Walter’s headspace when thoughts and desires for revenge are prevalent, and as this novel is very much Colin’s story, I think Tate made the right choice with the skeleton of Walter’s character.

The world-building, taking the form of a fantasized Colonial America, is realized to the point of being a character on its own.   This aspect of the novel is subtle and expertly revealed, Tate introduces the main cast characters and moves them around their small town while they converse about the situation that forced them to make the journey to the New World.  As these people leave Portstown and encounter the dangers in the unexplored lands, everything comes across to them as new, which works well to impart the details to the reader. 

On the surface, Tate’s fantasy stand-ins can be seen as superficial replacements for Elves, Dwarves, and Demons.  As more background of each of these groups is revealed, the Alvritshai don’t stray too far from their elvish genre predecessors, but the dwarfish Dwarren and demonic Shadows show more panache than simply bearded short folk or soul-sucking apparitions. From my perspective, even though the Dwarren are ground-dwelling creatures, the fact that they live under the earth like rabbits or groundhogs, as opposed to mountainous caves is the start of what makes them a fascinating creation.  The perception of the savage behavior masks some of their more realized backgrounds and intentions. The  Shadows, also have superficial similarities to their demonic brethren, but as Colin learns more of their past it became more evident that Tate has put a lot of effort into making them something his own.  Again, on these counts, he succeeded.

The storytelling/writing in the novel is solid, I found it difficult to put the book aside through the first half of the novel.  Colin’s plight and the Harten Expedition kept me turning the pages very quickly.  When the second half of the novel got into full gear (and jumped about six decades worth of time), the narrative energy wasn’t quite as strong.  The typical fantasy plot of Elves v. Man v. Dwarves came into play and the scope became more grand and epic in scope while Colin’s more personal and intimate story took a side step to share the stage.  Not that the time jump and shift in story didn’t make sense or was bad, it was shift in focus that let a little wind out of the sails. Some other predictable elements became prevalent in the narrative, but again, predictability isn’t always a bad thing, just that with some of the more fresh elements of the first half of the novel, I felt the shift did lessen the overall strength of the novel.

Well of Sorrows is a powerful novel, and its strength comes from Colin’s plight and journey as a character.  Don’t expect a happy story, a lot of humor, or sun-shine days.  That may be my only other criticism of the novel – its unrelenting somber, darkness is absent of any kind of joy with slim glimmers of hope.  I know the word Sorrows is right there in the title and the Well of Sorrows plays a major plot element in the second half of the novel, but some humorous passages or brightness in the narrative could have made for a more pleasant reading experience.  For example, a novel I read last year Germline by T.C. McCarthy was one of the most grim, dark, and depressing novels I’ve read in recent years.  The author offset that trudging darkness with occasional bits of humor and snark.  Again, let me say that this isn’t to say the novel is not good, because it is a solid and enthralling story.

In the end, Well of Sorrows was a very good novel full of engaging writing; characters (especially the protagonist Colin) about whom Tate made me care a great deal; and set in a fully-realized secondary world that is a character in its own right.  The sequel Leaves of Flame is out now, but I may need to take some happy pills or watch few uplifting movies before I venture again into the beautiful bleakness Tate has created.


© 2012 Rob H. Bedford

Well of Sorrows is the book of the month in SFFWorld’s February 2012 Fantasy Book Club so see what members of the SFFWorld community are saying about the book.

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