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A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony3 stars
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Buy from IndieBoundI remember well being a very young boy, and so many of my nerdy little friends and I being into Piers Anthony’s Magic of Xanth. It was right at the impressionable age at which I got into SF and fantasy with a vengeance. After decades, during which Piers Anthony has turned his Xanth series into an annuity with a fiercely loyal fan base who are practically writing the books for him now, it is easy to lose one’s perspective on this early novel, which as of this writing has gone through more than 50 printings.

Today, the whole Xanth series is perhaps the single most divisive non-media publishing enterprise in all of fantasy, at least since the demise of John Norman’s best-forgotten Gor. Xanth fans, while their numbers are diminishing as both they and the series’ author age out of relevance, were nonetheless loyal and committed, while its detractors loathed these books (and Anthony in many cases) with a passion mere words are inadequate to convey.

A Spell for Chameleon is a clever if unabashedly lightweight little coming-of-age story set in the mythical land of Xanth, where virtually everything possesses some degree of magic. Virtually everything, that is, except young Bink, who, approaching his 25th birthday, has yet to discover what his magic talent may be — or even if he has any magic at all. Fearing exile — for no inhabitant of Xanth is allowed to remain after age 25 if he has no magic — Bink undertakes a perilous (sort of) journey to seek the guidance of the Good Magician Humfrey, whose divination skills could help Bink discover his talent. True, Humfrey charges a year’s servitude in exchange for his help, but Bink decides that’s a small price to pay in exchange for perhaps not having to be exiled into the magic-free land of Mundania at all.

Along the way Bink has his share of colorful adventures. He narrowly escapes a dreaded Gap Dragon. He just as narrowly escapes the clutches of a crafty female illusionist. And when Bink finally reaches Humfrey’s castle and learns what is really going on where his possible magic talents are concerned, Bink's fate takes a sharp turn and a Pandora’s box of new turmoil and adventure opens up for him.

It is impossible to read this book and not immediately come away with the impression that you’re reading a kid’s novel. One criticism that has been levied against the Xanth novels from the outset, that Anthony is writing down — way, way down — to his readers, is justified. The prose is very uneven. One chapter will be extremely erudite, the next will be juvenile to a fault. Much of this story is dealt with in the frivolous manner you might equate with what passed for young adult fiction in the late 1970s, though the Xanth series has never been marketed directly as YA (probably for the fact that Anthony isn’t shy about tossing in lots of scenes of PG-13-ish sexual titillation). But in marked contrast to its flood of sequels, this first volume isn’t a bad book by any means, especially in its second half. I was perhaps about eleven years of age when I devoured the book for the first time. And that, to be honest, is about as old as you should be if you want to call yourself a Xanth fan. 

Yes, Chameleon has acquired classic status after 20-plus years, but that status is due more to its influence upon the course of fantasy publishing (in particular, “trilogies” could now go on forever) and its incorporation of self-referential humor, than for any inherent storytelling excellence. Anthony’s storytelling here is, for the most part, laconic. Mostly what he wants to do is pack as many whimsical, delightful, and farcical magical concepts into the tale as he possibly can. And, in Chameleon at least, it is easy to kick up your heels and just have a good time with it, taking it all about as seriously as Anthony does (which is to say not at all). I was amused by such things as the pillbox trees, that offer headache pills, or the little double-entendre-ridden scene in the first chapter about “sowing your wild oats.” Bits like this, which would come to define the series, are, in this first outing, still fresh enough not to be eye-rollingly obnoxious.

As you might expect from a book aimed squarely at kids, Important Lessons about life and human nature are spelled out in bright red crayon. I know there are many Xanth fans out there right now, bristling at my calling this a kid’s book, but really, this is fluff of the most harmless and trivial sort — though there’s nothing wrong with that in its own right. For instance, Anthony’s villians here aren’t really evil. At worst, they’re exceedingly mischievous. (The Harry Potter novels have much scarier baddies.) And everything wraps up in a neat little package that leaves everyone happy as clams.

There are many who categorically condemn both Xanth and Piers Anthony for having the temerity to exist at all. But when one considers A Spell for Chameleon in the context in which it was first published, one can understand how fresh it all was in 1977, when fantasy was still coming down from its major early-’70s Tolkien high, and the whole fantasy genre was doing a great job of taking itself oh-so-seriously and offering little apart from dour knockoffs of Middle-Earth. (Excepting Moorcock and the sword-and-sorcery crowd, of course.)

Into this environment swaggered Anthony and his Xanth, to be fantasy’s court jester, treating the genre with the nudge-and-wink it sorely needed. Sure, it’s all pretty childish, and for the most part, gang, it really doesn’t get better from here. Anthony wasted no time in turning his cleverness into fantasy’s newest catalogue of clichés. But for a moment at the end of the ’70s, and just before the emergence of a truly gifted humorist by the name of Terry Pratchett, Piers Anthony gave the fantasy world something unapologetically silly and yet truly charming and new. And that’s a little magic all on its own.

Followed by The Source of Magic.