1977’s British Fantasy Award-winning A Spell for Chameleon is the first volume in Piers Anthony’s seemingly endless Xanth series.
Poor Bink! Each human Xanth has their own unique magical gift. Bink appears to be one of the few exceptions, with no discernible magical talent. Not only does this place him at a considerable disadvantage to his fellow humans, but it will cost him his place in Xanth. Human law mandates exile for those without magic.
On the slim chance the Good Magician Humfrey’s powers can uncover the talent all previous attempts to discover have failed to spot, Bink set out to offer a year of service to the Magician in exchange for Humfrey’s help.
Humfrey may be Good but he is not Friendly or Easy to Reach.
Xanth is rich in magic and rich in magical creatures, plant and animal, happy to chow down on a careless, powerless human. Bink’s quest becomes that much more difficult when he encounters the beautiful but extraordinarily stupid Wynne, her propensity for wandering into danger compensated for only by her amazing tits.
If helping hapless Wynne was not bad enough, Bink comes to the attention of illusionist Iris, who is more than willing to offer Bink her body in any form Bink likes in exchange for his service as a figurehead King. The current King of Xanth is old, senile and dying. Iris would be a logical choice for the role if she were only not a mere woman. She could grant Bink the appearance of a talent and rule from behind the throne.
Bink avoids death and very sexy enticement but the result of his audience with Humfrey is equivocal. Humfrey can tell that Bink has a talent and a powerful one at that. What Humfrey cannot work out is the nature of the talent. Whatever the talent is, its nature makes Bink resistant to scrying spells.
The King may be old and only dubiously aware of his surroundings but he’s also doctrinaire and inflexible. Bink is cast out of
the Land of Point1 Xanth, into the world of magicless Mundania.
Exile is bad enough but Bink’s timing is remarkable. He emerges from the magical barrier around Xanth to find an invading army encamped. Years ago the evil magician Trent was exiled, just like Bink. Unlike Bink, Trent has a plan to get past the magical barrier.
A plan in which Bink can play a very central role.…
It’s weird how often the year 1977 comes up in these reviews.
The series is a powerful testament to the effect readers can have on an author: given the choice between the ambitious but flawed Macroscope and the considerably less ambitious fluff of Xanth2, readers voted overwhelmingly for Xanth. The result is no more works like Macroscope and no fewer than 40 Xanth volumes, with at least three more to come.
What did readers like, apparently? Endless lame puns, for one. There’s no obvious wordplay that is beneath Anthony: cherries explode because “cherry bombs” and so on.
There’s also a remarkable even by the standards of the 1970s obsession with sex. The first instance of Male Gaze shows up about seven paragraphs into the book:
Bink looked at the girl beside him as she stepped through a slanting sunbeam. He was no plant, but he too had needs, and even the most casual inspection of her made him aware of this. Sabrina was absolutely beautiful — and her beauty was completely natural.
and keeps up at a fair pace throughout the book. Bink assesses the attractiveness of pretty much every female person (human or not) that he encounters in the book, and he is not alone in this.
I’ve been somewhat unfair to Wynne above because the beautiful dolt is only one aspect of an unfortunate woman named Chameleon (this is the spoiler referenced above, by the way). Chameleon does not have a talent so much as she is a talent: she cycles from beautiful to hideous over the span of a month, and from phenomenally stupid to extremely bright at the same time.
Chameleon’s curse is typical of how women are treated in the book. Agency makes women annoying or dangerous. The main reason for tolerating them is the chance to have sex with them (although that too can bring complications; Wynne, for example, doesn’t know enough to say no — but she also does not know enough to avoid dragging paramours into life and death situations) but most of them demand a steep price for their services. Or worse, accuse someone of rape on the specious grounds they did not want to be overpowered and forced to have sex.
The tendency of men to want to have sex with anything even vaguely a woman turns out to have significant implications for Xanth. One of Trent’s goals is to mitigate the effects of rampant miscegenation, which I have to say is a word I didn’t expect to use in this review. I suppose given that Xanth is Fantasy Florida, it makes sense at least one major character would be obsessed with the supposed dangers of race-mixing.
There are a few corn kernels in this steaming pile: it turns out Xanth has such a thing as redemptive arcs, and the hints about Bink’s talent (which is as much a world-breaker as the Teela Brown gene, which as we all know made it nearly impossible to write more Known Space stories) are handled well enough. Those few details are inextricably entangled in some pretty dire material.
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Please email corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
- Plots driven by draconian laws are of course hardly unique to Anthony. The Silver Age Legion of Superheroes revelled in them; the main difference between hero Element Lad and villain Cosmic King is that their common superpower was accepted on Element Lad’s home world and considered evil by default on Cosmic King’s. I am so proud I wasted brain cells remembering that. That said, it would be interesting to list all the parallels between The Point! and A Spell for Chameleon if I was not worried doing so might make me think less of The Point! Bad enough The Point!’s draconian laws aimed at a virtually non-existent population suggests past ethnic cleansing.
- Apparently not simplified enough for some readers, because there’s a simplified edition.