The cover to my copy of A SPELL FOR CHAMELEON, Piers Anthony's first Xanth novel.

Normally my reviews are all spoilery. This is because I’d tell the whole tale to give everyone the context of the material, and then voice my opinion of it, in hopes that it would drive people to support the subject. But Peirs Anthony’s first novel about the magical land of Xanth, A Spell For Chameleon, provides a problem for me; much of the book isn’t worth reading if you already know some key points. So revealing all of them here wouldn’t really help drive anyone to pick it up, thus destroying my primary goal.

Please understand, I don’t mean to imply this isn’t a fun book, or a worthy read, with merits that go beyond the central mysteries of the plot. But I made the mistake of being too enthusiastic and looking up some info on the characters before/as I read. After that I found myself sort of quickly reading along until the story got deeper, since the mystery was now ruined for me. So here’s what I feel I can tell you;

In Xanth every human has a magical talent. If you don’t, you get banished to the Mundane Realm (i.e. our world). Our protagonist, Bink, has never seemed to manifest a talent, and is fearful he will be banished and whisked away from his fiance if his status cannot be proven otherwise. So he heads off to see the Good Magician Humphrey, in hopes of learning he has a talent. His adventure in search of his ability puts Bink in the company of centaurs, a saucy illusionist, a magic gnome, an evil magician, various puntastic threats, and he ultimately changes the future of Xanth.

Okay…I don’t think that gave away too much. But, if like me, you first found out about the Xanth series thanks to its listing on a TF website, you may already know too much. So, let’s get right to:

THE FINAL VERDICT: If you know nothing of Xanth or its characters and enjoy light and silly fantasy I recommend it. If you are familiar with the story from some other source and are really only looking for something with some good fantasy ladies and transformation, you may be best reading something else.

I cannot stress enough that I enjoyed A Spell For Chameleon. I know it doesn’t sound like it. But Mr. Anthony’s series is a light, fun little romp that I was always happy to find the time to return to. If I had the money I’d license it for graphic novel treatment. I’m eagerly reading the second book.

Please note that it’s extraordinarily light reading. And by that, I mean I think I was three chapters in before I realized I had no idea what Bink was wearing. I mean, literally, I didn’t even know if he had on pants. Once I thought about it I realized the only reason I assumed he was clothed was because no other characters had mentioned he was naked.

And Mr. Anthony’s decisions on what to describe and what to not swing back and forth like that throughout the text. Some items get no description whatsoever, while others get extraordinarily detailed minutia. Part of this is because Xanth seems to be entirely inhabited by puns; rock doves are stone until they take off in flight; nickelpedes are a threat because they are five times as dangerous as centipedes; every tree bares some sort of normally manufactured item, be it bread, clothes, or cherry bombs. So these things have to be described in order for the joke to work.

Many of these puns are of extraordinary length. And if you are of the mind to enjoy this type of wordplay (as I am) the book can be very entertaining. But if you’re not, the “hero’s journey” style that the majority of the book consists of may not hold you; Bink’s characterization doesn’t grow so much as it is explained, and certain events seem disjointed. It’s really the last quarter where things all start to come together and the story is more about the characters than the puns.

Those looking for a trove of transformation and fantasy-style women will find themselves stymied by the swinging pendulum of description. There are certainly no shortage of fantasy females. They range from ugly harpies to busty centauresses to illusion-casting sorceresses to curious mermaids to buxom hourglass babes. All are either entirely naked or in various states of undress at different times.

But if you’re a reader that prefers to have actual description, you’ll get little of it. Mr. Anthony prefers to use light allusion and the reader’s own understanding of anatomy to let our minds fill in the blanks, reportedly to keep things at a young reader’s level. So, when a character’s hands end up cupping the bosom of a centauress, don’t expect to get much description of what anyone feels from it. At times you will get a tantalizing piece of specific information – such as how a mermaid’s breasts slightly float in the water – but this is a rare exception. I’m certainly not looking for pornography-level details of the sorceress Iris as her dress blinks in and out of existence, but the manner and extent of which the detail is glossed over seems childish – nearing prudish – for a book that openly addresses the idea of humans finding centaurs and mermaids attractive, and what has resulted from such coupling.

I mean, once we breach that subject I think one’s claim to be writing for a young audience may be suspect. And Bink’s love for his fiance’s curves, and how the bodies of other women tempt him, would seem to imply that a decent description of said curves and bodies may be in order. There are many levels of descriptive detail found acceptable in literature  – even young literature – that A Spell For Chameleon seems strangely dedicated at avoiding in leaps and bounds, giving us details that are common sense in what they reveal – but seem dirty when compared to the drought of information elsewhere – only when it lands to make another jump over more description. [EDIT: see comments for another take on why descriptions may have been done as they were.]

Transformations get even less detail. The Evil Magician Trent has the ability to transform anyone into any other form. And he makes use of this through the book. But there are two issues; the first is that they are blink-and-you-miss-it transformations. Yes, a female character may end up as a basilisk or turtle, but the event is simply a “suddenly she was something else” type of change. Fans of the description of transformation process have nothing to find here.

The second problem – and only a problem in this specific area – is that the book is entirely told from Bink’s perspective. So, although the lady may now be a turtle, we have no description of how she is reacting to it. Yes, we can apply Bink’s experience to the other characters, but that may not be acceptable to some.

The closest we get to any female experience of transformation is one character whose intelligence alters inversely to their physical attributes, but the full ramifications of that are sparsely explored and much of her situation has to be inferred by Bink. And although there is technically breast expansion going on with a few characters, it either happens so fast – or so slowly! – that not much detail is dedicated to it.

To reiterate, I fully enjoyed reading A Spell For Chameleon. General fans of fantasy should pick it up; if all you are looking for is a fun and funny jaunt to read I absolutely recommend it. But, if you’ve stumbled across the series on TVTropes.org or some other TF website list and think you’d want to read it to get the experience of the transformations Trent places on the women around him, you will be disappointed. Only those coming with an open mind, and a lack of knowledge, will most enjoy Xanth’s first book.

And it is worth enjoying.