1978’s Exiles at the Well of Souls is the second volume in Jack L. Chalker’s Well World Saga.
The ancient Markovians’ technology gave them the power of gods, able to reshape reality according to their whims. While humans might not be able to duplicate that achievement on their own, access to abandoned Markovian relics allowed brilliant scientist Gilgram Zinder to reverse-engineer Markovian technology. Now he too can alter reality as he sees fit. Too bad Zinder is as naïve as he is smart.
Councillor Antor Trelig has a simple dream: become unquestioned ruler of the three hundred and seventy-four human-colonized worlds belonging to the Council of Worlds. At present, his talent for conniving and skillful use of drug-based blackmail has provided him with de-facto control of one hundred seventy-five worlds. Zinder’s discovery can provide Trelig with the rest.
Zinder has no interest in helping Trelig conquer humanity ‚but Trelig did not get where he is today by caring what other people want.
It’s a simple matter for Trelig’s minions to kidnap Zinder’s beloved daughter Nikki. Nikki is quickly addicted to a deadly drug, sponge. Without regular doses, she will sicken, her mind will dissolve, and she will die unpleasantly. Trelig cannot cure Nikki but he can provide her with the means to remain healthy and alive. Zinder has no choice but to obey Trelig in order to to keep Nikki alive.
A larger and more powerful example of Markovian reality-warping technology is constructed on the asteroid New Pompei. Once it is completed, Trelig announces to the other Council of Worlds councillors that he has a doomsday weapon against which no defense exists. He invites his colleagues to attend the demonstration.
Councillor Alaina has no desire to be Trelig’s subject. Accordingly, she hires Mavra Chang, talented interstellar criminal, to infiltrate the demonstration, locate Nikki, and rescue the girl so that Trelig no longer has his hold over Zinder. It’s a bold plan. Mavra almost carries it off. Another event intervenes.
As it happens, Zinder and his AI Obie have not kept Trelig fully apprised of every peculiarity of Zinder’s creation. Amongst the more notable emergent properties of the New Pompeii facility: sufficiently large-scale uses attract the attention of the Markovian planetary brain that maintains all reality. When the reality-altering system is brought to full power, New Pompeii is suddenly transported to the centre of the universe, into orbit around the Well World.
At this point, life becomes fraught for Trelig. As he is a nasty sadist, he has kept his staff in line by addicting them to sponge, whose supply he controls. Having no local source of sponge1, all of his resentful, heavily armed staff now face an inevitable, painful death. All of them are eager to express their displeasure to Trelig. A swift exit from New Pompeii, via space shuttle, is clearly mandated.
The Well World is covered in 1560 hexagonal habitats. They are diverse. Some have technology-dampers. Overflying such hexes disables space shuttles. In very short order, Trelig, Zinder, and a minion named Ben have been marooned in one region of the Well World, while Mavra, Nikki, and a turncoat guard, Renard, are marooned in another.
While newcomers are a regular occurrence on the Well World, they have always been the victims of the universe-range teleporters with which the Markovians littered the universe. None have shown up with off-world space craft before. The crashed craft could destabilize the Well World balance of power. A treasure hunt between competing powers begins.
Del Rey’s modus operandi seems to have been to give readers more of what sales suggested they wanted, in forms close to the original without quite being a simple reprint, in as much quantity as the market would bear. Thus, this novel, its immediate sequel (Quest for the Well of Souls) that followed in 1978, not to mention the two (The Return of Nathan Brazil and Twilight at the Well of Souls) that appeared in 1980.
Readers found the same pulp adventures in this volume as in the original Midnight at the Well of Souls. To a fair degree they found the same plot: a handful of humans, drawn in straightforward, bold… two-dimensional… terms, all from relentlessly conformist human worlds, are transported to the Well World, where they inadvertently become the focus of a planetary hunt. Villains indulge their sadistic tendencies. Almost everyone is transformed by the Well World into new forms. Chalker gets to talk about breasts a lot. No, more than that.
What readers didn’t get was more Nathan Brazil. He appears only as the man who helped rescue  Mavra at a critical moment. Otherwise, Brazil — who is functionally God — is entirely absent. Omitting the character most capable of a deus ex machina conclusion (particularly a character as unpleasant as Brazil) was probably for the best.
Not that Brazil’s absence proves sufficient defense against deus ex machina plot events. Once sufficient pages have gone by, filled with abundant action and transformation (in the case of Mavra, humiliating transformation), the plot suddenly halts as the McGuffin everyone is hunting is destroyed. The book comes to an end but the plot is not resolved in any satisfactory way. It is almost as though the publisher accepted one long book and ordered it cut in two, with the actual resolution being saved for the sequel that followed some months later.
I am faced with a dilemma. Do I read the third Well World book in hopes of a proper resolution? Or do I let the fact that this volume was very nearly a carbon copy of the first convince me to pursue more productive uses of my time? Perhaps you can advise me in comments.
1: The Markovian tech can magic up more sponge. The tech can also cure sponge addiction. This is not widely known.
2: Mavra is only temporarily safe. Peril is common in this universe. Saving someone from one crisis only means they survive to encounter the next.