Like Joel Rosenberg, Jack L. Chalker's work belongs to the often-ignored subgenre of gritty fantasy, the kind in which good guys die, bad guys aren't always evil, and even heroes are, in the end, only human. While readers often decry high fantasy for being 'unrealistic', many of them are disappointed when they open a gritty book and discover that it has left them unsatisfied. Most of us, after all, are seeking escape from reality - we'd rather see heartwarming tales of victory against all the odds rather than read about our hero losing everything he holds dear.
If you're in this group, you might just like this early offering from Jack L. Chalker. Readers familiar with this author will notice the same trend, but it has not yet fully developed into grittiness. Instead, we are presented with a relatively quirky fantasy, using a storyline that always manages to sucker me in: someone from our world enters a fantasy world. (If you like that theme, I recommend 'In the Net of Dreams' by Wm. Mark Simmons)
Chalker's take on this theme is surprisingly original, with a world that was inadvertinely created as a reaction to God's creation of our own world. Leaving this secondary world to His angels to finish, this new world ended up with many loopholes in its natural laws - loopholes that can be exploited by people who know how: wizards and witches, in a nutshell. Over time, the most powerful formed councils to plug these loopholes - and ended up creating reams of new laws instead, like any bureaucracy, some of which tend towards the ridiculous. "All barbarians must be exotic, but be of no particular nationality." Each chapter is headed by one of these laws, which gently poke fun at the entire genre of fantasy - but are very much real in this world. Christianity plays a large role in 'River of the Dancing Gods', but don't mistake it for a religious book - there are several themes in it that might prove surprising.
As a childhood favorite, I picked up this book again in a used bookstore one afternoon when I had several hours to spare. It made for a pleasant way to while away the time, but as I read it again, I noticed more gratuitious titilation than I'd recalled from memory. The whole series seems torn between the adult (themes of life - divorce, custody of children, mortgages) and the gleeful adolescent (a world in which the Law requires beautiful women to be scantily clothed, and nymphs grow in power the more often they...er...well, you know). Fans of Piers Anthony's work will probably find it similar, if more realistic. However, I ended up feeling hesitant to recommend it to my wife. It's certainly not erotica, but it's got enough 'tease' in it that some people will be offended.
Like my experiences with Piers Anthony's novels, I found re-reading them to be less enjoyable the older I get - but they continue to be well-written books that fans will enjoy, especially if they happen to be young men. Luckily for fans new to the series, they are all commonly available in used bookstores, giving you plenty of new reading for a nice price.