The next item on my reading list is Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. It starts with A Spell for Chameleon, published in 1977. I knew this was a long series, but I had no idea that there are 39 of them, and several more still forthcoming. These books were always staples at my local used book store, but I never picked them up. Something about getting into a long series like that is incredibly daunting.
Luckily after the last book I read for this challenge, this one doesn’t take itself seriously at all and is a light, vaguely pleasant read. Well, most of the time. Spoilers ahead!
Also TW for discussion of a rape trial.
The story follows the (mis)adventures of Bink as he tries to establish a place for himself in the magical realm of Xanth. As an aside, the map of Xanth in the front of the book looks suspiciously like the state of Florida, and is the first clue that this book is going to poke some fun at fantasy tropes. In Xanth, if you can’t demonstrate some form of magical ability by the time you come of age you get exiled out into the mundane world where the rest of us humans supposedly live. Bink is trying to avoid this fate, so he sets out on a quest to discover if he has a power and what that power is.
The story takes a few interesting turns, but unfortunately it lost me fairly early. If you enjoy humor and fantasy you have probably read at least one book by Terry Pratchett. If you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and go grab one. Small Gods is a good one, and in fact is farther up on this reading challenge list. In any case, Terry Pratchett has spoiled me a bit on other fantasy humor, because not only are his novels funny, but they are often packed full of biting British satire so potent that you often laugh to release the explosive pressure of all the snark. That’s the bar that has been set for fantasy humor. Piers Anthony’s humor is funny (sometimes) for its own sake, and lacks the sharp edge that I enjoy from laughing at something that is funny because it is shedding uncomfortable truths.
The main uncomfortable truth laid out in A Spell for Chameleon is that Piers Anthony’s depictions of women are abyssmal. His humorous touches were entertaining most of the time, but when it comes to any interaction between Bink and a female character, human or otherwise, the jokes could have been written by a horny 14 year old boy. I suppose that’s who this series is really aimed towards, since I have several friends who read them when they were young and seemed to have fond memories. Heck, I probably wouldn’t have had much problem with it when I was younger, and that thought makes me deeply uncomfortable. The women in this novel are horrible caricatures of the worst stereotypes of women. The one who seems most like a person, the initial love interest of Bink, Sabrina, gets written off as heartless and traitorous early on because she doesn’t sacrifice her entire life to try to save or to be exiled with Bink. The centaur woman Bink meets is smart and capable in some ways, but her whole reason for existing in the plot is to “temper” the hot headed male centaur and to get “accidentally” groped by the protagonist. That was where the book lost me, 10% in according to my Kindle. After that we get treated to a disgusting sham of a rape trial, a power mad older woman who uses illusions to appear younger, and the pinnacle of the book, Chameleon.
Chameleon is a woman who changes over the cycle of (surprise!) a month. At one peak of her cycle, she is beautiful but completely devoid of intelligence, while at the other end she is very smart but also very ugly. I am not even going to start unpacking that here. But Bink decides that this is exactly the perfect kind of woman for him. Basically this book gave me insight I didn’t want into the mind of Piers Anthony, and probably millions of men like him. Insight like how they think a rape case is as bad for the victim as for the defendant, and that if you know each other ahead of time it couldn’t really have been rape anyway. Insight like thinking women who won’t reshape their lives to suit yours are cold and unworthy, but ones who try to reshape your life to theirs are grasping and evil. And insight like the the assumption that no man could settle for a smart “ugly” woman or even a moderately smart, moderately attractive woman when they could also have a beautiful idiot. Let’s not even mention the fact that beauty plus brains seems to be an impossible combination.
This book did have some genuinely funny moments too. Outside of its treatment of women it was mostly fine. Some other stuff happens in the plot but honestly by the time that happened I was so checked out I couldn’t really tell you. If you like sophomoric humor and gross stereotypes about women, there’s 38 more where this one came from including one charmingly titled “The Color of Her Panties”. For anyone else, you’re better off skipping this series.
A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony
Rating: 2/5 stars
Verdict: I would have enjoyed this more and probably given 3 or so stars when I was a kid. Now I’m old and cranky and think the way it treats women is supremely gross.