Xanth: The Quest for Magic
(Del Rey, 774 pages, paperback, $18.95; November 2002.)
This collection, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Piers Anthony's
Xanth stories, comprises the first three books in the series.
As the subtitle implies, each of the three represents some sort of quest.
The first novel, A Spell for Chameleon, involves the 24-year-old
Bink's search for his magical identity. Where Bink lives, in the land
of Xanth, every human is required to exhibit a magical talent by the
age of 25 or suffer banishment to the magicless country of Mundania.
Although Bink discovers his talent to be a secret power that prevents
him from being harmed by, of all things, magic, he is unable to prove
it and is cruelly banished. In Mundania he meets his future wife, Chameleon,
and the Evil Magician Trent. Through a quirk of fate, the Magician,
Chameleon and Bink all wind up back in Xanth and reluctantly form a
truce until they can find refuge.
They travel to Roogna, a magical castle that has lain in ruins for
several centuries. After the group experiences a number of trials, Bink
realizes that Trent is not evil after all, and in fact is a wise leader.
Trent becomes the king of the land and decrees that banishment of the
magically challenged is unethical. Bink is therefore allowed to remain
in Xanth, where he marries Chameleon and is assigned a post in Trent's
The second novel, The Source of Magic, finds Bink sent on a
quest to learn the source of Xanth's magic. Chameleon, pregnant and
due any day, is left at home for this mission. On the trip Bink discovers
a demon confined in a cavern. Feeling the demon is unjustifiably imprisoned,
Bink frees it. Sadly, once the demon leaves, the magic of Xanth is gone.
Although he has achieved his quest and found the source of magic, Bink
is disheartened that his actions have cost so much. Turns out, though,
that, once the demon is home, he discovers he is hopelessly behind the
times so far as elevated demonic thought goes. He returns to Xanth to
study in private and the lost magic returns with him. Bink, joyful in
the outcome, runs home to Chameleon and learns she has given birth to
a son, Dor.
The third book, Castle Roogna, is the story of 12-year-old Dor's
quest for a magic potion that will restore life to a zombie named Jonathan
who is devoted to Dor's nanny, Millie. (Millie, a woman who'd been mysteriously
murdered 800 years earlier and whose ghost had been haunting Roogna
ever since, was herself restored to life in the previous book.) Dor
learns that Jonathan's restorative potion can be obtained from the Zombie
Master who lived long ago during the time when Castle Roogna was built.
In order to travel back through time, Dor enters a living tapestry
hanging in one of the rooms of Castle Roogna that depicts life during
the Zombie Master's era. Once in the tapestry, Dor bumps into Millie,
the very same maid who will one day become his nanny. Dor locates the
Zombie Master, who promptly falls in love with Millie. The feelings
are mutual, but, through a sad twist, Millie is murdered (again!) and
the stricken Zombie Master commits suicide. Following these tragic events,
Dor takes Jonathan's elixir and returns to his own period. Once restored,
Jonathan turns out to be none other than the Zombie Master himself.
He and Millie are happily reunited.
Although written in a simple style and fairly childish, the three books
have a number of clever moments. The author loves his puns and has a
delightful way of inventing objects based on the literal use of the
object's name. "Breadfruit trees" are trees whose fruits are loaves
of bread. A field of "sea oats" gives off a "pleasant swish and gurgle
of their oceanic tides", while "wild oats" are literally sown as part
of a young man's sexual maturation.
As in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the simple style belies the fact
that many of the puns are wickedly witty and to be enjoyed mostly by
adults. The passage on the gerrymander is a perfect example. A small,
dragon-like creature, the gerrymander works dastardly hard to prevent
anything from passing its stronghold. It can change its body shape in
order to achieve this goal. Dor orders the gerrymander to step aside
and the creature responds, "If you pass, you prevail. I am Gerrymander;
I prevail by whatever devious configuration." Later, after his form
has distorted numerous times, he states, "You have no power, your grass
roots are shrivelling, your aspirations fading away. Your strength will
be mine." And then comes the best line in the whole book -- an illustration
of the hypocrisy of literal gerrymandering: "I don't have to be contiguous."
Not only is the gerrymander physical nonsense in this book, it is moral
nonsense in Congress ... and Anthony gives us a hilarious send-up.
In addition to his delightful puns, Anthony packs every mythological
creature known throughout literature -- griffins, centaurs, harpies,
gorgons -- into his stories. Any monster ever invented in any legend
anywhere is included: dragons, ogres, goblins, demons. He invents some
of his own: invisible giants, wiggle worms, nickelpedes (centipedes
with nickel-plated pincers). The common stuff of fairy tales -- magic
mirrors, spells, rings, magic dusts, love potions, healing waters --
is found here. Nymphs, fauns, elves, dwarfs, trolls, sorceresses and
wizards are depicted or at least mentioned. And, in the case of the
last book, inanimate objects can talk, courtesy of Dor's magical talent
that enables him to communicate thus. Nothing is left out.
Some concepts in the books have not aged well. The earliest novel contains
the convention of the good girl/bad girl moral judgement that, back
in the 1970s when this was first written, could still (almost, perhaps)
be used without apology. Nowadays we look on such an outmoded profiling
as laughably stiff, or even abrasive. But, to be fair, the characters
in this intensely complicated setting probably needed to be designed
as good or bad by some arbitrary characteristic. If they were drawn
deeper we'd never get past the descriptive stage of the story, and those
all-important quests would be stalled. Judgments need to be made quickly
because there is so much ground to cover.
For a light read with all the elements of the fantastic and a touch
of the farcical without the monotonous earnestness of many quest books,
this introduction to Anthony's land of Xanth can be recommended.
Review by Sue Lange.