A Spell for Chameleon: Stay away!

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Reposting to include Kevin’s recent review.

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:

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 AnthonyA Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony

Bink 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


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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is an undergrad at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea. This might just be because Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of the SFF genre at the ripe old age of 5. His literary tastes range from epic fantasy to military fantasy to New Weird, although sometimes he does enjoy a good space opera here and there, and some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. To Kevin, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he is extremely discriminating as it pertains to this last bit. Outside of his bibliophilic life, Kevin loves economics, philosophy, policy debate, classical music, and political science.

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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 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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11 comments

  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.

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