A Spell for Chameleon
By Piers Anthony
Published by American Printing House for the Blind
Read by Lee Ewing
I first read this book when I was in college, I think. I had read several other series by Piers Anthony which all started out well enough but somehow got needlessly bogged down in mathematical games or sophomore philosophy, none of which did anything for the later stories. Also the actions and motives of the characters in his sequels seemed to get more complex, while the characters themselves remained undeveloped. So I will admit starting this book with some hesitation.
Like most of his series, this one does start out well enough and the story is pretty good although the characters are a bit flat. The male characters are two-dimensional at best and the females are one dimensional. I think what bothers me the most is the author’s broad generality about how men and women think, what they are like even when sometimes they are not like that at all. I do have similar problems with many of Robert Heinlein’s characters (Lazarus Long and the women who put up with him come to mind) and, in fact, with any author who tries to simplify what men and women are like. In a story it makes them less than people to me… just stick figures. If you want to confuse a caricatures with characters the least you can do is not try to insist that everyone is like that.
Well, that aside, A Spell for Chameleon is about a young man named Bink who lives in a magical land called Xanth but he, himself, appears to have no magic at all and by the laws of the land he must either prove that he really does have some sort of magic or suffer banishment. Eventually, after many adventures, even though he has the word of a “Good Magician” that he does have magic, he is unable to demonstrate it is forced to go into exile to the dreaded land of Mundania. There he meets the “Evil Magician” Trent who is intent on conquering Xanth, he also meets a remarkably ugly and incredibly intelligent woman named Fanchon who seems to know him far better than any stranger ought to. Together, Bink, Fanchon and Trent accidentally stumble back into Xanth through a series of incredible coincidences even though a protective field should have killed them on contact. The three agree to a temporary truce until they can get somewhere safe, but Bink must stop Trent from conquering Xanth.
The story is not a bad one and certainly better than most of the later stories in the rather long Xanth series which after a few volumes degenerate into mere excuses to drag out as many lame puns as Mister Anthony and his fans (yes, he does requests, I guess) can dream up. Unfortunately, Like so many characters by Piers Anthony the ones in this book are flat and, by and large, uninteresting. They are there to move the plot, but by themselves each is a flat stereotype. Well, I think this was aimed at young adults, so maybe that’s good enough. Certainly the series has been wildly successful to the point that it seems to be all Mister Anthony writes these days. That is sort of a shame because he has shown his ability to tell a decent story.
I should note, that I stopped reading this series after the fifteenth book (it is now up to 40 volumes) so it is quite possible that the later books improve and I just do not know it. In any case the first three stories are pretty good even with their flat characters after that you will need a stronger stomach for puns than I have (and that is really saying something!)
Lee Ewing has read a fair number of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels and he does it creditably. I did occasionally have the impression he was rushing through the reading, but that could be a matter of the publisher trying to save tape space (yes, I believe this edition was originally published on tape) by speeding up the recording and then doing a bit of digital magic to keep Mister Ewing from sounding like the fourth member of Alvin and the Chipmunks (the one who left the group before they made it big), however, I have suffered through much worse examples of that.
Mister Ewing comes close to resorting to “funny voices” to differentiate the characters, but since some of them are non-human (harpies and other monsters are common in Xanth) that is not entirely out of character for them. The only voice I did not like was that of Fanchon who sounded like an old woman and not one of Bink’s age (Twenty-five, I think). Even there he had to make her voice unpleasant for reasons that become apparent while reading the book.
So, to sum it up, A Spell for Chameleon is about of average quality, literature-wise, but above average for escape literature and much better than the Xanth books I have read in general and Lee Ewing’s reading is worth listening to.