A Spell for Chameleon: Stay away!

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony fantasy book reviewsA Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony

You know that delighted little feeling you get when a package arrives on your doorstep? And with how excited you are, you just can’t wait to unbox whatever it is? Imagine you’ve just received a mysterious package, perhaps one you’ve been anticipating for a long time. Except, you’re so thrilled that you forget to check the name on the shipping label… and when you open it up, it’s not for you… Whoops.

You see, I’d heard so many things about Piers Anthony’s XANTH series, and as far as I was concerned, its popularity virtually guaranteed that A Spell for Chameleon, the opening novel of the series, would be spectacular… right? Wrong. In fact, just about every aspect of this book rubbed me the wrong way, and I really felt as if the novel I had just finished couldn’t possibly be the same as the one being praised.

Let’s start with the basic premises: our protagonist Bink, age twenty-four, lives in the magical land of Xanth where all citizens possess an innate magical ability. Everyone has one, whether it’s as mundane as making pink spots appear on a wall or as spectacular as generating lifelike illusions; that is, everyone except Bink. So Bink begins his quest to discover his magical talent, because he will be exiled from Xanth into “Mundania” if he doesn’t uncover it before his twenty-fifth birthday. Though the premise of the plot doesn’t seem atrocious, the devil is truly in the details.

Throughout A Spell for Chameleon, Anthony peppers us with an almost shameful amount of banality and terrible puns. The setting is an alternate Florida in which every living organism is magical; the wild oats are truly “wild,” and when Bink tries to plant some, they “fought him savagely.” The needle cacti are hostile beings which shoot painfully sharp needles at all who come near, and there’s even a character named “Justin Tree,” a former magician named Justin who was turned into a tree. As the novel progresses, the puns just seem to get worse and worse:Xanth series by Piers Anthony

Bianca certainly knew how to make a sandwich. Roland always teased her about that, claiming she had mastered the art under the tutelage of an old sand-witch.

After a certain point, the light and humorous tone Anthony was trying for just didn’t manifest — I simply couldn’t get over how bad the jokes were.

And then there was the misogyny present throughout the novel. The most blatantly sexist attitude came from Corporal Crombie, who noted that “women are the curse of mankind,” but numerous other characters displayed similar mindsets. One of the most irritating episodes for me was when [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILER] Bink is exiled from Xanth after failing to display his magical talent, and his erstwhile girlfriend Sabrina refuses to follow him into exile. [END SPOILER] Bink immediately decides that Sabrina “cared more about appearances than reality” and begins a two-page rant about how shallow and useless women are. Not only does this make Bink seem quite immature, but it also contributed to his lack of depth. In fact, most of the characters in A Spell for Chameleon were very shallow and displayed stunning shortages of complexity, a fact compounded by the simplistic dialogue and style.

All in all, A Spell for Chameleon simply didn’t cut it for me, and neither did its sequel The Source of Magic. Every time I turned a page, it just felt as if the story was gradually falling apart. While I do understand that most avid fantasy fans do come across the XANTH series in their early youth, I also feel the need to question whether the values espoused here by Anthony are the ones we wish to instill in the next generation. So I say of A Spell for Chameleon, to readers of all ages: stay away.

~Kevin Wei

A Spell for Chameleon by Piers AnthonyBink is a teenage boy without magic who lives in a land where everybody else has some particular magic spell they can cast. Bink must go on a quest to discover what his power is before he is exiled from his beloved homeland.

I read A Spell for Chameleon about 20 years ago and I hated it. In fact, I couldn’t even get past the midpoint. The book was juvenile, silly, and often disgusting. Actually, the best word is puerile. It’s most likely to be enjoyed by a 12 or 13 year old boy. A Spell for Chameleon is full of objectification of girls and, worst of all, the stupidest puns I’ve ever read.

The XANTH series is very popular, but I just couldn’t stand it.

~Kat Hooper

Xanth — Began in 1977. 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 Humpfrey, 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…

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is political/digital strategist based in Harlem. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea (a href="https://fantasyliterature.com/fantasy-author/funkecornelia">Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of SF/F at the ripe old age of 5). Kevin loves epic fantasy, military SF/F, New Weird, and some historical fantasy; some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. In his view, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he's extremely particular about this last bit. You can find him at: kevinlwei.com

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. I really loved the first 6 or 7 Xanth books–but I did read them when I was about 10. With each book, a bit of the magic faded. Could have been partly the books, could have been partly me and my reading tastes changing. When I was in my 30s I tried to read one of the later books that I hadn’t read before. Let’s just say it wasn’t my thing!

  2. I think these books live in a special nostalgic bubble in many people’s memories. I love puns and I couldn’t stomach these books, because I started reading them when I was older, and Anthony’s bad story-telling and toxic misogyny was just a killer one-two punch.

  3. Yeah, I read these in my teens and I recall liking the first three for the magic and basic idea but even then having discussions with my friends (who also read them) how puerile it was, with the focus on breasts (I seem to recall too the word “panties” a lot). If you’re making three teenage boys in the 70’s uncomfortable, just, well, ick. One of us picked up the fourth, passed it around, we all decided that was it for this series. I picked up one of the first three years later just to see if it was as bad as I remembered and it was worse. Now, rather than nostalgia, I think back and am a bit embarrassed I read past the first one . . . And no, I’d never give it to my kid to read and if I saw him with one, we’d have to talk.

    • THE COLOR OF HER PANTIES is one of his titles.

      • I was just about to type an “LOL”, then I thought, my god, could she be serious? No way. But a quick Google, and then a moment to swallow the bile rising in my throat, and there it is. Dear God, and that wasn’t somehow the death knell for the series? But at least according to the plot summary, he has a strong female character, you know, one who failed at “tricking” someone into marrying her and then is “still desperate” for a husband, and who takes the proper care in one of the biggest decisions of her life-which I gather becomes a plot point in a later book as well. I have to go throw up now. And shower. Then throw up again . . .

  4. “Faced with a choice whose consequences will be earth-shaking and far-reaching, our plucky heroine digs deep, calls on all her inner resources, and chooses… plaid.”

    Oop, was that a spoiler?

  5. Becky Aswell /

    Even as a youngster, the bad jokes killed it for me. The author seemed a little too taken with his own purported cleverness. The puns were not at all good. Now, as an adult, the misogyny and poor writing baffle me: how did this series go on for so many volumes?

  6. Chris /

    Heaven Cent, which is I think number 12 in the series, was the first Anthony book I read. It was also first novel of its size that I ever read, at about the age of 12. I absolutely loved it. The whole experience of reading it definitely is locked my nostalgic bubble, and I’m pretty sure that’s the book that got me hooked on reading for the rest of my life.

    I read a few of the books that followed back then, and decided to start with the first novel in the series. I never finished it and though I don’t remember why, I know that that was the last time I read a Xanth novel–moving on to other books.

    I think the idea that these books will foster generations that are misogynistic is a little over the top. It’s equivalent to saying violent video games turn you into a murderer. I know when I read them, girls were just starting to drive me crazy. Seeing someone’s comical take on girls helped me look at it all in a different light, but I certainly didn’t think it was God’s Truth About Women.

    I feel like his books are without a doubt geared toward adolescent males. However, I was introduced to the series by a girl who had read almost every single one.

    Also, he’s still writing Xanth novels to this day.

  7. Agree, these are so dumb.

  8. Danielle /

    I loved the whole series. I still read them to this day. They are my favorite books. Granted I am as old as this series is. I started reading them when I was 15. Demons don’t dream was the first one I read. The puns are part of the charm for these books. I agree with what Chris said. It is geared towards teen boys. But you have to have an imagination. A spell was a little odd when I first read it. But I wanted to collect these books. And I did. Had them all except for the man from mundania. Unfortunately that one is not in print. I have even built a sim dedicated to the series when I owned one on second life. That was fun doing that when I had the funds for it. I miss Sapphira. Had everything from beach combers to barking dogwood trees. LOL. You can enjoy them at any age as long as you can stand the puns. Most of them are reader suggestions. And Anthony credits the puns to his readers. He is a great guy. Just enjoy xanth as it is. Open your mind to the possibilities. Have fun with it.

    • I didn’t know that the puns were reader suggestions. That’s awesome!

      Thanks, Danielle and Grey, for talking about your love of this series. I would probably feel the same way if I had read them when I was a lot younger and then could look back on them nostalgically.

  9. I started with Man From Mundania, then startes it from the beginning. I liked them all, even most of his other works. It was referred to me by a girl, too. She loved the series. It is not meant to be War and Peace. It is a light read, not meant to change the world, but to give us all a great escape from Mundania.

  10. Anthony Addis /

    I never picked up on the misogyny when I read these books 30 + years ago, but I did in the Bio of a Space Tyrant series, which was really unpleasant. I enjoyed the Xanth books up to number 6 or so, then moved onto other things…David Eddings and Terry Pratchett, I think.

  11. Yupper. Horrid puns, and the guy bleeds sexist. Hated these when I first read them, and hate them even more now.

  12. Matt /

    I first read these in the 80s as a teen and loved them. They’re definitely full of racy/sexy elements. Considering a lot of movies, pop music, etc. also like to sex it up, I think many people enjoy a little titillation in their entertainment – if you don’t, though, skip Anthony! He has a bit of a dirty mind.

    And while some of it definitely comes across as sexist now (e.g. the rape trial), that’s probably a good sign of our society making progress. This was written in the 70s – the era of Benny Hill, James Bond, and tons of sexist pop lyrics (e.g. Led Zeppelin). Much of Anthony’s writing doesn’t seem misogynistic to me – the protagonist Bink tells the sexist soldier to stop and apologizes to the girl he offends, Bink’s father tells him not to have cheap sex with nymphs but to try a real relationship with a real woman, and Bink often thinks about women’s character, intelligence, and abilities as well as their physical attractiveness. Having read a lot of these as a youth, I never got an overall impression of sexism from them nor did it make me become sexist, although of course now some of his ideas seem inappropriate. But, there’s certainly anti-sexist ideas in there, too – such as in a later book, when someone decides that “only men can be king” needs to be abolished and a woman becomes king. (I mean, that’s hardly a groundbreaking idea, but it does show Anthony has some respect for equal rights).

    A major part of Anthony’s interest is his ideas, too – the main character is always trying to figure out the logic of his world (magic, evolution, etc.) as well as make moral decisions (one of Anthony’s trademarks is that his characters often make moral decisions that make their lives more difficult). He also often tries to address real issues (e.g. racism) in many of the Xanth novels. The books aren’t pure, dumb entertainment – there’s stuff to think about (and not just Anthony’s no-longer-acceptable social views). Like most “culture” from the past, it has to be read with some allowance for (but also awareness of) outmoded attitudes and opinions, but I still think there’s good entertainment and many positive ideas to be found in it.

    • You make excellent points, Matt. Thanks for engaging with us on this and for pointing out some examples that challenge my perceptions. I appreciate it and will consider giving Piers Anthony another chance.

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