Of the four novels in The Four Lords of the Diamond series, I think that Charon: a Dragon at the Gate, simply falls on its face. I thought the same when I was sixteen reading the series for the first time. The first book, Lilith: A Snake in the Grass is cool because it sets up the whole thing and I was totally turned on by the idea of the place. On the planet, Lilith, unless you have some rare mental power, everything manmade or dead (for example, clothes and cut flowers) gets broken down to nothing within a matter of minutes to hours. Wow! So everybody goes around stark naked and are essentially enslaved to those few people who can prevent this ultra-rapid deterioration, just so they can eat and therefore live. Clothing takes on a whole new meaning as a status symbol on Lilith. If you’re dressed, then you’re powerful. It’s a good thing that the climate is warm or else folks would really suffer! It’s a messed up place, but pretty kinky.
Cerberus: A Wolf in Fold is the second volume. It’s the one that I remember best from my youth in the Eighties. This is a “high tech” world where everyone lives on enormous trees that sprout up from the world-wide ocean. No land here, you better like boating. There the little sub-microbes infect you in such a way that you can switch bodies with whomever you’re sleeping next to at the time. That’s wild! Do you think that folks kidnap each other, strap themselves and their intended victims in chains held together by combination locks and then sleep nearby in order to steal an appealing body? Chalker never mentions it but perhaps he wasn’t completely familiar with the Cerberan black market. It’s still my favorite of the series.
I remember that my excitement about the Four Lords of the Diamond began to flag with book three, Charon: A Dragon at the Gate. This is a tropical world that you Well World fans would call “semi-tech.” Due to some peculiar, poorly explained natural phenomenon, severe electrical storms get attracted to any forms of power more sophisticated than the steam engine. Perhaps as compensation, some folks, at least, have the power to create illusions that seem real and eventually become so with the passage of time. It’s a great idea used to incredible advantage in the Soul Rider series. Yet I feel on Charon, it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Sure there’s some initial creating-furniture-and-food-out-of-thin-air hocus pocus and of course there’s a lot of shape shifting going on. But that’s really it.
I was reading just today a sort of whiny site criticizing Chalker’s use of shape and gender changing, referring to it as “Author Appeal,” a dismissive term taken to mean “a kind of fan service where the presence of a particular gimmick or kink is so widespread and prominent that it is interpreted as the specific reason the creator actually produced the work.” I simply cannot agree. Jack L Chalker is the bomb! It’s the same as complaining that Jane Austin’s novels deal excessively with young, inexperienced women seeking romance and a secure income. Absurd! There’s a lot more to the novels than a shape changing kink-fest.
That said, “Charon” is a bit of a snooze compared to the others. Perhaps I struggle with the romantic relationship between the Federation Agent on Charon and Darva? It just doesn’t ring true for me. The plot’s especially forced in this one, too. But my main issue is that compared to the Soul Rider series, these Charonese are so uncreative about their control of the wa, that microbial force that lets people directly manipulate matter with their minds. Alright, there’s a fair amount of shape shifting and some cool “magical” battles. But where are the Fluxlands and the masses of the powerless relentlessly controlled by the wizard classes for their sick amusement? What about the governmental chaos that you might expect with such out-of-control power? It’s simply not there. I wonder if the possibility of these as a consequence of wa control occurred to Chalker after “Charon” had already hit the presses? I’m glad he figured it out in time for the next series.
I’ll spare the brief on Medusa: A Tiger by the Tail. It’s sort of different from the first three and ties everything together in unexpected ways. “Four Lords of the Diamond” is a real adventure story and can be easily enjoyed merely on that level. I have to think that there’s a bit more to it though. Throughout you are witness to horrible atrocities of being against being with the most base of desires and motivations: greed, power hunger, sexual depravity, you name it. Yet somehow there’s this real sense that even though these will always, and sometimes must, exist, that at times life is wonderful, mysterious and beyond anything that we can dream of or imagine. That’s why I really like Chalker. As wild as the stories get; as strange as the bodily and mental transformations; as brutal and harsh the treatment, he never hides it, he never despairs and he never gives up on us.