Title: A Spell for Chameleon
Author: Piers Anthony
Publication Date: 1987
Purchase Price: $7.19 (paperback)
Misc. Info.: First in a “trilogy”
Welcome to the land of Xanth, where magical creatures like griffins, dragons, and blanket trees live side by side in (almost) total harmony. The land of Xanth is so magical, in fact, that even its human population is magical. But alas, not all spells are equal; those with weaker magic (or the “spot-on-the-wall variety”) are ruled over by those who have more powerful spells, such as transformation and illusion. But everyone can perform some kind of magic.
Because those who demonstrate no magical ability whatsoever are summarily exiled to Mundania, a wild land with no magic. But the citizens of Xanth are not required to demonstrate their magic abilities until they are twenty-five years of age. Plenty of time to find one’s power.
The trouble is, Bink is twenty-four years old, and has been dubbed “the spell-less wonder” by those of his village. Bink can’t perform any kind of magic–he can’t even put a spot on the wall. There is only one option left: Bink must travel through the wilds of Xanth to the tower of the Magician Humphrey. Perhaps the ancient Magician will be able to discover if Brink is truly “spell-less.”
So begins a journey that extends into the farthest reaches of Xanth (and beyond). Bink faces face monsters and finds friends, and soon begins to realize that he is more powerful than anyone could believe.
Author Piers Anthony had originally intended to make A Spell for Chameleon the first in a trilogy, but the series was so popular that he extended into nine books. But even that was not enough for the rabid fans, so now Anthony has stated that he will continue writing books in the series for as long as he can get his publisher to produce them. There are currently thirty-three books in the series, with two more due to be released in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Based on the general tenor of these novels, it is remarkably apropos that many (including Anthony himself) still refer to it as a “trilogy.”
The Xanth Trilogy is not strictly Young Adult, but I can with little difficulty see most high schoolers reading and enjoying it. Middle schoolers may not understand the puns, and Bink (like many young men his age) is terribly obsessed with girls. Nothing totally shocking happens, but it’s not all necessarily stuff I would want to explain to my eleven year-old.
I have read several (numbers 1-5) of the books in the Xanth Trilogy, but this was the first time I had revisited the series in quite a while. It’s amazing how I remembered some aspects so clearly, but had forgotten some others.
The entire series relies on puns–some clever, and some very corny indeed. Because I love puns, it makes sense that I remembered those very clearly. But I’m not normally a terribly philosophical person, and I had forgotten that Bink is constantly questioning the world around him: how it works, why it works the way it does, how he affects it, how it affects him and his friends, why his friends are the way they are…the list goes on and on. I wouldn’t consider my experience with the Fantasy genre to be extensive, but I don’t recall anything else I’ve read being so focused on such cerebral elements. At first I didn’t really like it, but the further I got into the novel, the more normal it began to seem.
I am also slightly bothered by how young Bink seems. At the book’s open, he is twenty-four years old, yet in many ways behaves like a person half his age. I think this could be intentional on Anthony’s part, a way to show that even though Bink is an adult, he still has some learning to do before he can become the man he is meant to be.
Illusion seems to be a big theme of A Spell for Chameleon. Nothing is as it seems.
- Bink is not “spell-less”
- Trent is not really evil
- Iris is a master of illusion
- Chameleon is constantly altering
- Mundania and Xanth are less (and simultaneously more) different than Bink realizes
My favorite character is undoubtedly Chameleon; I think she is a perfect example of Piers Anthony’s creative chutzpah. Not only does she transform from ridiculously beautiful to hideously ugly, her intelligence also alters–inversely. The more ugly she is, the more intelligent and capable she is. Her transformations follow a lunar cycle.
I can’t really decide whether to be charmed by Anthony’s intelligent creativity, or insulted by his (possibly) rather sexist characterization. While real women’s physical appearance does not alter as extremely as Chameleon’s throughout the month, sometimes their personalities really do go through changes. This is something that neither the character nor we can help, and much like Chameleon, many of us look for ways to lessen the process, or halt it altogether.
What I really am insulted by, however, is this quote from Bink, near the end of the book:
“That’s the point…I like variety. I would have trouble living with a stupid girl all the time–but you aren’t stupid all the time. Ugliness is no good for all the time–but you aren’t ugly all the time either. You are–variety. And that is what I crave for the long-term relationship–and what no other girl can provide.”
It’s true that when Chameleon tries to insist that she needs a spell to make her smarter, Bink does respond with, “You don’t need any spell, Chameleon. You’re fine just the way you are,” but I still just can’t get over his “need for variety.” He wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants the benefits of variety without having to deal with maintaining relationships with multiple women. I realize that Anthony has not made this desire for variety a negative aspect of Bink’s characterization (he’s not tricking Chameleon, or being malicious), but my Inner Feminist is rather aggressive, and notices these sorts of things.
All that said, none of this is a drawback to the book. A Spell for Chameleon is an excellent novel, with well-developed characters, a not-totally-obvious plotline, and plenty of room for sequels. Obviously.
I can’t make any huge, sweeping statements about A Spell for Chameleon, simply because it is the first in a series, and there’s still a lot that I just don’t know, that the characters themselves don’t even know. I’ll continue to read the series, but I doubt I’m a big enough fan to read all the way to the end of the series (thirty-three and counting, with no end in sight). But I know I’ll enjoy every book that I do read.
” ‘Genuine wild oats, culled thrashing from the stem, sown by the full moon, watered with your own urine?’ he inquired frankly, and Bink nodded, his face at half heat. ‘So that when the plants mature, and the oat nymph manifests, she will be bound to you, the fertilizer figure?’ Bink nodded grimly. ‘Son, believe me, I comprehend the attraction; I sowed wild oats myself when I was your age….” (p. 17).
” ‘I asked whether I have a soul,’ the monster said seriously.
Again Bink had to control his reaction. A year’s surface for a philosophical question? ‘What did he tell you?’
‘That only those who possess souls are concerned about them. …Possession of a soul means that I can never truly die. My body may slough away, but I shall be reborn, or if not, my shade will linger to settle unfinished accounts, or I shall reside forever in heaven or hell. My future is assured; I shall never suffer oblivion. There is no more vital question or answer.” (p. 141).
” ‘What if it goes for one of us first?’ Fanchon demanded. ‘Suppose we’re more than six feet from you?’
‘I suggest you arrange to be within that radius,’ Trent said dryly.” (pp. 216-217)
If you could have a magical power, impressive or not, what would it be? What do you think of puns?