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Xanth: The Quest for Magic

by Piers Anthony

(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 cover scanseries. 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 court.

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.

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