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Literature / River of Dancing Gods

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A troperiffic fantasy series written by Jack Chalker. As with all Chalker products, expect copious amounts of Author Appeal between the heaping servings of high parody. What can you say about any series where most popular fantasy tropes have been literally written into the physical laws of the universe by powerful magicians?

Consists of:

  • The River of Dancing Gods (1984)
  • Demons of the Dancing Gods (1984)
  • Vengeance of the Dancing Gods (1985)
  • Songs of the Dancing Gods (1990)
  • Horrors of the Dancing Gods (1994)

Contains examples of:

  • Anti-Climax: Chalker either ended the series one book too soon or pushed the concept one book too far.
  • Author Appeal: As with many of Jack Chalker's novels, this series features plenty of his trademarks, including plenty of Body Horror, Emergency Transformations, Gender Benders (complete with the First, Second, and Third Laws of Gender Bending) and Shapeshifting.
  • Barbarian Hero: The middle-aged truck driver Joe finds himself reborn in a fantasy world as Joe, the Barbarian! With the mighty sword... Irving!
  • Becoming the Genie: This is the curse of the Lamp of Lakash. People assume they can get three wishes, but in fact the lamp only grants two, and only the first is free; the second will replace the current genie with the wisher automatically (although the wish must still be fulfilled).
  • Blessed with Suck: Joe's heroic sacrifice gave him immortality and near godlike powers but only at the cost of being stuck as a girl and a fairy, both fates worse than death as far as the macho male barbarian is concerned. Especially since he believes it cost him both his one true love and his last chance to be a proper father to his son.
  • Body Horror: If you're transformed by magic, or even just if you adopt a disguise, the new shape begins to mess with your mind. You'll find your original personality wearing away to be replaced by whatever you now appear to be. In the worst examples, two characters are effectively erased, transformed into generic stereotypes, while Joe is eventually trapped in the form of a wood nymph for eternity.
  • Chainmail Bikini: One of the most famous Rules is that "weather and climate permitting, all beautiful young women must be scantily clad". This means the female barbarian character must compromise between protection and conforming with the Rules.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Master thief Macore gets a curse that takes away his reflection; when he looks in a mirror, he sees nothing. Later on, when he works his way through Ruddygore's vault, the main trap is a magical mirror that creates evil duplicates to slay intruders — but can't do a thing to someone with no reflection.
  • Continuity Cameo: In Book 4, the villain, who has been banished from both heaven and hell, wonders where his soul will end up. It turns out he goes to a limbo where all the great defeated villains go. There he meets Baal, Sauron, and even great Cthulhu.
  • Cool Sword: Joe the Barbarian's mighty sword Irving.
  • Dangerous 16th Birthday: Discussed in the last book (as a sign of the general level of Genre Savviness) but ultimately discarded as the character in question has been in hiding her whole life and probably has no idea when her real birthday is.
  • Engineered Public Confession: The villain is defeated with a two-step plan. First, edit the script of a speech being given by The Dragon to contain the phrase "I wish you could all see what the world will be like when we win." Then, conceal a magic wish-granting Lamp in the podium he's speaking from. All of the Big Bad's followers find out exactly what they've been supporting.
  • Evil Versus Oblivion: In Demons, there's a sorcerer plotting to bring about the end of the world. Every other evil sorcerer in the world is against him, once they find out, because they've all done a Deal with the Devil to enhance their power, and consequently want to postpone Judgement Day as long as possible.
  • First Law of Gender Bending: Joe gets temporarily genderbent a few times as a result of various magical shenanigans, but at the climax of Songs of the Dancing Gods he winds up permanently stuck in a female body after his own body is destroyed in a Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Forced Transformation: Joe and his companions are transformed into various animals by a Circe-esque witch. Once they've escaped the witch, Joe and his companions exploit the Mundane Utility of their animal transformations to sneak through a dragnet. Posti in particular comes to prefer his new form. Given the choice he decided he'd much rather remain a pretty stallion than a dimwitted and ugly human.
  • Freeing the Genie: Anyone greedy enough to make a second wish from the Lamp of Lakash would automatically free the genie and take its place (though they did also get their wish, for whatever good it might do them). The "three wishes" story was a clever dodge by the genies to get themselves freed by unwitting masters.
  • Freudian Excuse: Subverted in one of the books, wherein a) the character discussing his tragic early life is on the side of good, and b) it transpires that this tale of a sad past is complete and utter nonsense designed to throw the villain off his game. It works.
  • Functional Magic: Combines Theurgy with ludicrously elaborate Rule Magic and takes them to their humorous extreme, resulting in a universe entirely governed by fantasy tropes.
  • Gender Bender: Joe is a big tough guy, good with a sword. Until he gets turned into a wood nymph.
  • Genie in a Bottle: The Lamp of Lakash is a classic "magic lamp" right out of the Arabian Nights, but with a twist: it does have a genie living inside it, but the genie is the last person who used the Lamp more than once. So you get one wish for free, but the second time you exchange places with the previous genie.
  • High Fantasy: Ruthlessly parodied in just about every way you can imagine, and a few you can't. To start with, most of the tropes that make a work High Fantasy are explicitly written into the basic Rules of reality, just like, say, gravity.
  • Isekai: The core concept of the series is that two humans from Earth have been brought to a fantasy world.
  • Least Rhymable Word: In Vengeance, there's a magical oracle who can only speak in rhyme. He keeps a guy called Porange Chilver around as insurance, in the case he accidentally ends a sentence with "orange" or "silver".
  • Magitek: Magic follows very specific rules and mathematically precise patterns, such that every high-ranking wizard also has to be a genius mathematician. One of the major subplots follows how much this system is screwed up by the introduction of technology smuggled from Earth; even a pocket calculator could turn a mediocre magician into a powerhouse, and more powerful computers can be programmed to work out new spells at high speeds. Also, in one plot where a powerful wizard came to Earth, he discovered that creating magic spells was analogous to computer programming, which allowed him to bring magic to our world.
  • Mermaid Problem: Discussed. The mermaids that live in the River of Dancing Gods are 100% mammal (more half-dolphin than half-fish), and when a male character gets involved with one it's explicitly mentioned that their bits are human-compatible.
  • Missing Reflection: Weaponized in Vengeance of the Dancing Gods: a sneaky demon sets a "mark" on the master thief Macore: henceforth he will cast no shadow or reflection. Macore later uses this mark to slip into the wizard Ruddygore's treasure vault and initiate Hell's newest plan for taking over Earth.
  • Most Writers Are Male: Lampshaded: "Weather permitting, all beautiful women will be scantily clad."
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: Literally enforced by the rules. Change bodies (which is Chalker's thing) and you're subject to the rules affecting the new body. Possess someone and you have to live by the rules affecting their body.
  • Named Weapons: One of the Rules is that all magical swords must have names. Joe, to the bemusement of pretty much everybody, names his after his son Irving.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: The Fair Folk in the fantasy world take the place of our world's natural processes. They live eternal, but sadly limited, lives.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: Mermaids are half human and half dolphin but their social organization resembles a pack of hyenas crossed with the mafia. They make their living extorting protection money from fishermen.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: The were (not werewolf, just were) transforms into whatever animal is nearest when the full moon takes effect. And since humans count as animals, many find it convenient to marry other weres, combining a "Freaky Friday" Flip with Power Perversion Potential.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Prophecies from the better oracles are always true: the only problems are that you usually don't know what the specifics mean right away, and the prophecies don't state what the outcome will be, only what is needed to have a chance of getting the outcome you want.
  • Red Herring: Alvi, the Author Appeal-laden purported Living MacGuffin of Horrors of the Dancing Gods actually turned out to be a Sequel Hook for a following book which was never written.
  • Second Law of Gender-Bending: Averted, unusually for a Chalker protagonist, in the case of Joe, who never accepts being changed from a barbarian hero into a tree nymph. The final book hinted that he might eventually start moving in that direction as a teaser for another book that was never written.
  • Shapeshifting: Several times; Joe is turned into a wood nymph, turned back to human, then back into a wood nymph. On first arriving in the world, Marge is also turned into a "sexily exotic" form that turns out to be another type of Fae. Joe's girlfriend gets turned into a mermaid. This is one of Chalker's "things."
  • Special Person, Normal Name: The main characters are Joe and Marge — which is fair, as it's an Isekai series and they're from Earth. But then Joe receives one of the very last unnamed magic swords in existence and is granted the great privilege of giving it the name that it will bear for now and ever after through centuries of legend. He picks "Irving" after his son.
  • Third Law of Gender-Bending: The version where the character simply cannot resist adopting stereotypical attire or behavior due to irresistible compulsion, latent desires, Mind Control, biological imperatives, or some combination of the above is written into the Rules.
  • Unscaled Merfolk: Mermaids are all-mammal, with their "fish" half most closely resembling a dolphin.
  • Virgin Power: The female protagonist starts out learning a form of magic that demands virginity. Naturally, once she's passed her tests she's instead taught a form of power based on prostitution.

Alternative Title(s): The River Of Dancing Gods, Demons Of The Dancing Gods, Vengeance Of The Dancing Gods, Songs Of The Dancing Gods, Horrors Of The Dancing Gods