Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review: A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony

Title: A Spell for Chameleon
Author: Piers Anthony
Series: Xanth #1
Pages: 344
Publisher: Del Rey 
Date Published: February 16, 1977
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Bought because it's AWESOME

Xanth was the enchanted land where magic ruled--where every citizen had a special spell only he could cast. That is, except for Bink of North Village. He was sure he possessed no magic, and knew that if he didn't find some soon, he would be exiled. According to the Good Magician Humfrey, the charts said that Bink was as powerful as the King or even the Evil Magician Trent. Unfortunately, no one could determine its form. Meanwhile, Bink was in despair. If he didn't find his magic soon, he would be forced to leave...

My Review:
I don't even know how to begin describing the crazy, super-brainy, ridiculous ride that is Piers Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon. It is truly a book that is unlike any other. In the magical world of Xanth, each human possesses the ability to do one piece of magic. Your talent may be as amazing as conjuring weather, or as stupid as being able to make anyone you see be able to tap-dance. No talent ever repeats itself and you cannot live within the boundaries of Xanth without a talent. The story follows Bink, a north villager, as he makes his quest to the Good Magician Humphrey so that he can find out what his talent is. He has until his 25 birthday (in one month) to discover his talent or forever be banished to the terribly boring world of Mundania (our world).

Everything about the world that Anthony creates seems to have a curious sense of irony or humor attached to it. Curiously, Xanth is shaped a lot like Florida and reflects some interesting insights into our world and the worlds of fantasy. It's almost as if Anthony just wants to poke fun at every man, woman, child, idea, creation, thought, belief in the universe and does so without thought of consequence, reason, or care. You find yourself led into thirty different directions when reading this book. One minute you're following the plot of a simple man questing to find his magic, the next, you've been led on a 4 page long tangent on the existence of squirrels and how they make up the fabric of the universe (Not literally...but it's these types of ridiculous revelations that are common in the world of Xanth) 

Anyways, back to the along the way to find the Good Magician, Bink encounters wonders beyond our wildest imagination from shades, to dragons, to a girl who changes from ugly and smart to beautiful and idiotic. The sheer number of amazing, ironic, and baffling things that Bink runs into in his travels is pretty intimidating, and the story suffers from what I would like to call the "adult fiction drag." This is the phenomena that creates books which seem to drag on and on just for the hell of it. Books that have vast paragraphs and pages to describe a single moment in time. Though the prose could be wonderful, interesting, and actually cause the reader to think about the world, they also tend to drag and make a less steadfast reader lose interest because of the sheer amount of thought required to understand what's going on. In addition, Bink himself is kind of frustrating. He's loyal to the bone, and makes pompous and rather idiotic decisions because of his loyalty...but at the same time you like him because he is so heartfelt and honest. He fluctuated from making you want to throw the book across the room or keep reading with a white knuckled grip on the pages. 

One thing I loved was that Anthony succeeds in merging together classic elements of fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi flawlessly and with witty observations of all kinds, from the nature of being human to what exactly a thought entails. I swear, there were certain paragraphs that I had to literally put down the book and think about for 10-15 minutes just to contemplate the philosophy behind it or the deeper meaning of life, or some other intensely meaningful thing. Yet at the same time, the book is chock full of utter ridiculousness. Butterflies made of butter. Horseflies literally being horses that feel like you're in a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Disney's Fantasia...only for adults.  

One of my absolute favorite things about this book were the magical creatures: My favorite by far were the centaurs. The centaurs are apparently brainy and classy, yet consider magic obscene. I really enjoyed meeting Cherie and Chester, even though Chester was such a hot-head you wanted to slap him. They seem to know about everything from mathematics to astronomy (kind of like in Harry Potter...)but they absolutely refuse to acknowledge magic. Their prejudices and pretensions set them apart and made fun of them at the same time which I really got a kick out of. But centaurs aren't the only creatures worth mentioning. Also like Harry Potter, there is a ridiculous amount of magical beasts. I almost felt like I needed a reference book or school book in order to keep them all straight, but I loved the diversity of the monsters, especially that they came from all the different pantheons of the world. The invisible 40 foot giant, the chimera, the harpies. Every creature vaguely referenced in ANY mythology of ANY part of the world is somehow deeply entrenched in the cultural monstrosities of Xanth. 

There is a lot of flack directed towards Anthony, and his Xanth series in general, that bashes him for being a sexist or discriminating towards women. Well...though there are a lot of blanket statements about women, and lots of careless reflections (i.e. declaring a woman's worth based on beauty and the ability to *ahem* raise a particular part of the male body) I actually thought it was meant to be ironic. There was a lot of idiocy from the men of the book: Bink basing his entire life on Sabrina and Crombie's COMPLETE sexism...but their beliefs made them look like bull-headed fools while the women seemed shrewd and cunning. It was as though the simple chauvinism that the male characters possessed enhanced their female counterparts rather than demeaned them and I got a real thrill and giddy sense of mirth at the thought of these girls outwitting and outplaying their supposed betters at their own game. I may be completely wrong and reading the book completely differently than everyone else, but it seems like Anthony was poking fun at chauvinists and male dominance instead of supporting it. Perhaps it was the readers who were unable to grasp the depth of certain insinuations and meanings...after all...there is so much complexity involved in the book that you barely have time to consider the bigger picture, let alone examine every nuance and reference for what Piers is implying. I think he is absolutely BRILLIANT. 
I give a strong 5 Keys to A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony. Though I found it fabulous beyond belief, I can definitely see that it might not be for everybody. It's an intelligent comedy, satire, and farce...but is extremely intelligent as it does so. You have to understand the basic fundamentals of the English language (Alliteration, Allegory, Onomatopoeia, etc) to get a lot of the "funny" in this book. This is a complex piece of world building that is only the first step in what looks like a freaking LONG series. I kid you not, there is more than 30 books in the Xanth series and apparently they are still growing strong. I for one can't WAIT to read book two! 

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