I just finished Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in the Xanth series, which was published in 1977. The similarities between his world and that of Harry Potter are difficult to ignore. People born with magic powers? Check. A magical world set on Earth during modern day? Check. Centaurs, dragons, mermaids, and a host of other magical creatures? Check. Animated plants that kill people? Check. Not convinced? In Harry Potter, non-magic folk are called Muggles, while Piers Anthony calls them Mundanes. But whether J.K. Rowling intentionally stole her ideas is difficult to say, and if you’ve read my article on cliches you may understand why. In fiction, similar ideas come up again and again, specifically because they are good ideas. It’s hard to believe that among the grand scope of authors, a story about a magical and non-magical world existing side-by-side could not have been conceived of independently. But unlike J.K. Rowling, Piers Anthony takes a more scientific approach to magic. Typically, I don’t like plots that revolve around the supernatural since, for me at least, it robs the story of tension; it’s like a dream where anything can happen and there is no real sense of danger. But Piers Anthony’s rigid adherence to the rules governing his universe makes the magic feel both believable and at times threatening. A Spell for Chameleon does a great job telling the history of Xanth, explaining why and how magic and non-magical people exist, and why and how they are separated. It even goes so far as to explain the evolution of magical creatures. These are just the kinds of questions my analytical mind couldn’t help conjuring while reading Harry Potter. I wanted to know more about the Wizarding World that J.K. never explained, like why the Ministry of Magic felt the need to hide from the Muggle world. I always assumed it had something to do with the Spanish Inquisition and the danger billions of Muggles with guns and atomic bombs posed to a magic gifted minority. While J.K. Rowling only hinted at possibilities, Piers Anthony went straight to the issue. Of course, not everything in Xanth is the same as in Hogwarts. Humans in Xanth are forbidden from interacting with the Muggle, er, Mundane world, and they are born with only one power, called a talent. If a child in Xanth cannot show his or her talent after a certain age, he is forever exiled to the Mundane world. This is where the story starts, with a guy named Bink (yes, Bink) who just wants to settle down and marry his girlfriend. Unfortunately, as far as anyone can tell, Bink has no magical talent, so his quest to find one begins.
I love this kind of story and this book, a straight up fantasy adventure. But while Xanth continually fascinates, it’s the plot and characters that keeps you reading. Piers Anthony is my kind of writer. At first, he comes across as somewhat juvenile, something for my seven year old to read. The style is simple and direct, often humorous in tone, but there is a real depth to his story that reveals itself the further you read into it. At times, I had to pull up the dictionary function to look up a word. I also love his near limitless imagination. This author is not afraid of the fantasy genre! Every chapter abounds with monsters, illusions, spells, and just crazy stuff the writer makes up, and somehow he makes it all work.
But Piers Anthony’s greatest talent is in making you relate to his characters, despite that he seemed to have gone through his high school yearbook to name them. Bink is a simple-minded every man that’s easy to like. There’s also (minor spoiler) Chameleon, a girl who goes from ugly-intelligent to beautiful-stupid throughout the course of a month. As a side note, some reviewers accuse Anthony of sexism, since Bink is overly preoccupied with sex (don’t ask how centaurs are born) but honestly, I just think his writing reflects the attitude of the seventies. His greatest achievement, however, is Trent the Evil Magician. Without giving anything away, Trent breaks with every literary convention in being both villain and protagonist. Not to be confused with an anti-hero, Trent is honorable, honest, eloquent, and impossible not to like. His only downside? He wants to takeover the world.
While the mysteries in A Spell for Chameleon won’t take you by surprise, the writing and the story is so charming and fun, you’ll be glad you picked it up. This is old fashioned fantasy the way it should be done, and while everything is neatly wrapped up by the last page, you’ll likely want to revisit Xanth in the many novels that follow just for the fun of it.