Saturday, September 21, 2013

Weirdo Science Fiction -- A Spell for Chameleon

Hey y'all.  So I was at work, and I noticed a book with a guy talking to a lion/scorpion thing.  I turned it over to read the back cover, and it said this --

"For the lack of a spell, Xanth!  That was the enchanted land where magic ruled -- where every citizen had a special spell only he could cast.  It was a land of centaurs and dragons and basilisks.  For Bink of North Village, however, Xanth was no fairy tale.  He alone had no magic.  And unless he got some -- and got some fast! -- he would be exiled.  Forever!  ....Be that as it may, no one could fathom the nature of Bink's very special magic.  Bink was in despair.  This was even worse than having no magic at all...and he would still be exiled!"

That sounds like a pretty good story, yes?  Well, it's a lie.  Sure, the back covers and dust covers of books exaggerate their contents from time to time.  Often they'll only only describe the first part of the story to prevent spoilers from messing up the story, and then accidentally giving an inaccurate impression of what the book is really about.  That's really just the nature of book synopsies -- they have to give enough to intrigue the reader, but not too much that they've basically read the story by reading the summary.  Any error in that is quite forgivable, though it's fairly annoying when they give away too much.  Especially when it's one of those emotional women's modern fiction or coming of age stories where there isn't much plot to begin with.  Sorry, but divorces and depression aren't anywhere near as interesting as dragons.

In any case, this is a science fiction, so you'd think that the summary would be easier to write.  But no, it directly lied on the back of the cover.  But anyway, I was craving some good sci-fi/fantasy, because at work I have to recommend books.  So why not actually learn more about the stuff I'm putting on the shelves?

Well, A Spell for Chameleon was written by Piers Anthony, for whom we have a lot of books on our shelf. There's a little library stamp on the bottom that references 1984, so clearly he's a writer from a previous era.  Normally this is a good thing, as modern writers are far too emo, and they don't seem to have an understanding of how true fantasy works.  The trouble with that, however, is that I have developed an assumption that the older writers do understand.

I should be fair to Piers Anthony.  This is his first book I've read of his, so maybe he has other ones that are better.  I'm not particularly tempted to read them now, but yeah, maybe.

Oh, by the way, like usual I'll be spoiling the end of the book.

This book is of course about Bink, who lives in a world where everyone must have some sort of magical power, even if that power is something as simple and tedious as making a pink spot appear on the wall.  Otherwise they have to leave the magical world of Xanth, beyond the magic shield, where the mundane people live in Mundania.  That's a pretty amusing name, I have to admit.

There are several things I find amusing about this world.  For example, Mundania is supposed to be awful and boring, but Xanth is extremely dangerous to the point where boring would be a relief: everywhere there are dangerous plants and inanimate objects that have their own forms of magic, like a cactus that shoots out spines, a pool of water that can make people act in that pool's best interest, or a river that turns people into fish because an evil wizard depleted all the fish years ago and the river needs more.  Living in that sort of world must make your hair stand on end, because just about anything can trick or kill you.

But Bink likes it, as he likes Sabrina, his fiance.  So naturally he doesn't want to get banished, and decides to journey to a wizard, Humphrey, who he hopes can make his magic show up.  The journey towards Humphrey is the most interesting part of the story, because Bink is actually doing things and making decisions.  However, it's made troublesome by a really irritating aspect of the book: it has too many female characters.  Given that Bink is a young man, every time he encounters a woman, he gives a full assessment of how beautiful or ugly she is, and how smart she appears.  It's like, oh, there's a woman, so let's write a one-page essay on how she measures up.  It's pretty disturbing.  There's the centaur woman -- who of course he 'accidentally' feels up -- the insanely attractive but horribly stupid Wynne, the early-aged widow of a ghost he encounters, a sorceress who attempts to seduce him, and completely average in every way Dee.

Y'know what?  I don't give a crap about a guy's assessment of different women.  I suppose it's trying to contribute to a theme of what men truly want in a woman, but I read fantasy for fantasy themes.  Sure, the man theme can be in there too, but not at the expense of sacrificing anything truly interesting about the story.  I just wanted to see Bink have adventures and try to solve them in a non-magical way.  After all, this story is about Bink, right?

So Bink finds Humphrey, and this is where the story starts to go wrong.  Now, in any given story, actions have consequences, and when a character must evade a doom or a trouble, there has to be a legitimate reason why he has done so.  Bink mentions several times prior to this point that Humphrey is a money-grubbing wizard, and that for his services he requires a year's worth of work.  However, Humphrey is unable to discover Bink's magic.  He knows that Bink has magic, and says so, but that magic is hiding itself for whatever reason.  Because he cannot do what Bink has asked him, he doesn't charge Bink.  He instead writes Bink a note to give to the king of Xanth and explain to him that even though Bink's magic isn't apparent, he should be allowed to stay in Xanth.

What's the problem with that, you ask?  Well, even if Humphrey couldn't find Bink's magic, he's still performing a service by writing the note and discovering that the magic was there already.  You might claim that's not much service at all, but Humphrey still demanded payment from a beast that guards his castle.  What did he do for that beast?  Well, the beast wanted to know if it had a soul, and Humphrey told him that he wouldn't have been worried about a soul if he didn't have one.  And for that alone, the beast has to guard the castle for a year.  Lovely, no?

I wish Bink did have to serve that year.  Surely working for a wizard would be interesting, and it would provide drama between Bink and Sabrina.  That would be a good idea, because Sabrina barely enters the book at all.

At this point, Anthony dispenses with almost all the drama.  Bink has a completely unremarkable journey back to the North Village, he goes before the king and shows the note.  The king, being old and senile, ignores it, banishing Bink anyway.  This scene was fine, but soon afterwards there's an unnecessary jump-cut (and yes, apparently books can have jump-cuts).  Does Anthony show the family's reaction to Bink leaving?  No.  Does he show Sabrina's reaction?  No!  It wouldn't have been so bad if nothing changed between Sabrina and Bink, and she was simply sad he left.  But no, we're simply told that Sabrina was disappointed in Bink and decided he didn't have any magic at all.  Why can't we see this?  If Sabrina was willing to marry him before, would the choice of a senile king really make that much difference?  I'd buy this as an explanation if Anthony had shown it, but we're simply told about it through Bink's thoughts as he's trudging towards the magic shield.

At this point, you've possibly noticed the lie.  The back of the book suggested that Bink's power was "even worse" than not having power, implying that it was something so bad it deserved exile.  Instead?  We find that his magic is hidden.  That's not "worse than having no magic" that's basically equivalent to having no magic.  At worst, it's merely annoying that Bink doesn't have any magic.  It's sort of implied that he's better off not knowing what his power is, but you know what it turns out to be?  He's immune to magic.  It can't hurt him at all.  That's not worse in any way.  It's not dangerous to anyone, and basically only guarantees that Bink can go through the magic shield whenever he wants.

You'd think they'd have some sort of fancy names for all these things, but whatever.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.  Bink doesn't actually find out his power until the end of the book, when it's basically all but over. Before that, he gets exiled...for all of two days.  As soon as he passed though the magic border, he gets captured by the evil magician Trent (what's with names in this book?) who is building a mundane army to take over Xanth, and yet saying it's a good idea because Xanth needs "fresh blood" and to be exposed to the things Mundania has invented.  While I like the idea that Mundania is useful to the world of magic, it's utterly out of place that a conquerer has Xanth's best interests in mind.  I mean, if the king of Xanth were a tyrant, that would be one thing, but he's really just some senile guy with no heir, and apparently no thought towards appointing one of his own.

Wait, what?  If he knew he was old, why didn't he pick someone out?  Seriously.  You have to think about these things when you're the king.

Anyway, so on it goes, and it turns out that another person has left Xanth, but voluntarily: Fanchon, a woman who is hideously ugly, but brilliantly smart.  Yes, again with the analysis of the nearest female.  And since Bink doesn't trust her at first, she gets studied over and over again.  Well, her smarts enable her to help Bink escape, and they attempt to steal Trent's potion that will enable him to destroy the magic shield.  Trent, however, swims with them, and all three end up sinking in a whirlpool and being luckily deposited within Xanth.  So much for exile and learning anything interesting about Mundania.

Now, the potion that Trent was going to use to get past the magic shield smashes, but he still left a large army of mundane soldiers outside the magic shield.  It'll take a while, but they do have the ability to make the anti-magic potion again.  This is never referenced again throughout the book.  Is the army still there?  What are they doing?  What if they decide to invade Xanth without Trent?  This becomes a more important question as the book goes on, sadly.  Oh, and as they escape the underwater cave they've been stranded in, Bink takes the time to observe the mermaids.  Guh.

The book at this point is just not worth reading anymore.  What happens?  The three of them form a truce of necessity, because they can't survive without gear.  They go to an abandoned castle, which has magic on it where it wants to make a strong magician the next king.  Y'know, inanimate objects have their own magic in this world, and apparently that's what a castle wants.  What happens?  Not much.  Trent does some reading in the old library, and tries to convince Bink he really wants to help Xanth.  Even as they manage to escape the castle, Trent and Bink are still going back and forth about whether or not Trent is a good or bad guy.  And since Trent isn't doing anything evil at this point, it's just a bunch of conversation.  Bink, however, decides he's going to stop Trent anyway, because even if Trent isn't as evil as he used to be, he still shouldn't try to steal the throne of Xanth.

During this duel, he discovers that Fanchion is in fact both Dee, the extremely average girl, and Wynne, the stupid beauty.  They're Chameleon, because that's the girls' magic: every month she goes from stupid beautiful to genius ugly, all while being Dee in between.  It's supposed to be a parody of women's cycles.  I guess the theme here is supposed to be that "it's okay that women are crazy because men like that in women", as Bink says that he doesn't know what he really wants in a woman, so having all different kinds seems the most exciting of all.  Do men really feel this way, or is Piers Anthony just a nutjob using Bink to project his feelings?

I suppose it's not all that bad a theme, and is supposed to make female readers feel better about being strange, but the trouble is we women don't see ourselves as inconsistent as men see us.  We are crazy only in male eyes; women make perfect sense to ourselves.  So I suppose this glimpse into the male psyche is educating, but it's still pretty off the wall, and is a fairly weak observation when playing around with the themes of magic versus the mundane would be far more interesting.

So what happens in the end?  Well, the king of Xanth dies of age while the duel is going on, and Chameleon is injured.  Trent tries to care for her, and turns Bink into a phoenix to get help to save her.  So, apparently Trent is a good guy.  Bink's father, who apparently works for the king, arrives to pronounce judgement on Trent...and declares that Trent is king.  No, Bink never had a chance to tell his father, or anyone else, that Trent is really just someone trying to change Xanth for the better.  He's still a bird.  So his dad, apparently with the support of others, declares some wizard guy they only know as evil to be their next king.

Why?  Because only powerful magicians are allowed to be king.  The only powerful people in Xanth are Humphrey, who doesn't want the job; Sorceress Iris, who is the one who tried to seduce Bink earlier and doesn't actually practice sorcery; and there's Bink himself, who through Trent's help has discovered that he's a powerful anti-magician who can't be harmed, but can't actually do anything with magic.

So why can't Bink be king?  Or someone who isn't a former antagonist?  Sure, I'm fine with the idea of Trent becoming a good person, but we never saw his change.  The book just talks about it, trying to tell when it should be showing that Trent means well.  Also, there should be some way to convince the normal citizens of Xanth he's not evil.  I mean, if you were a villager and all of a sudden the guy who turned people into trees and fish is now the king, wouldn't you revolt?  To make it worse, Trent chooses to make the Sorceress his queen, despite the fact she was deceitful and antagonistic -- Humphrey said of her that she just needed to be married.  Uh, well, somehow I doubt that marriage would fix someone like that.  Of course, Iris was middle aged, so maybe she having issues what with being unattached at that age.  I read a psychological assessment of unmarried women in their thirties who are obsessed with being married.  It was kinda creepy.

But what's more creepy is making her the queen when she can take on other people's appearances, conjure sea monsters out of rocks, and has clearly expressed her intention to rule.  Perhaps being queen will satisfy her, but it's still a risk.

So what happens to Bink, you ask?  Eh, he gets to study Xanth and proposes to Chameleon.  That's it.  This is the main problem with the book.  Like the manga Hollow Fields, it sets up a main character, but then gives all the backstory and plot to alternate characters, leaving the main character to just stick around until the end. It really makes you wonder why they didn't write the story about Trent instead.  After all, he's the one with clear ambition and making proactive attempts to actually get something done.  The instant Bink is exiled, he stops having a purpose and a goal, even a vague one like finding his purpose in life.  He doesn't question what he will do in Mundania, and even when Trent shows up he makes no plans to either stop Trent or put Trent to the test to determine if Trent is lying or not.  Even the title talks about a character we don't comprehend until near the end.

And, unlike Hollow Fields, A Spell for Chameleon does not make up its plot flaws with charm and cute characters.  Few of the characters are likable.  I don't enjoy Bink talking about mermaid boobs or threatening to kill a tree nymph.  The new king and queen are duplicitous and unreliable.  Sabrina (so we are told, anyway) is a selfish jerk, and the guy she ends up marrying has a grudge against women.  The senile old king didn't appear to give a crap about his subjects.  Humphrey was boring.  The only people sympathetic in the story were the ghost and his widow, who were there for only a short time.  Considering how "wrapped with a bow" the ending was, I'm surprised they didn't show up at some point.  And the mundane army outside the magic shield is still there, with little clue what happened to Trent, and still confused over the existence of magic.  Trent makes no orders about communicating or dealing with them.

In other words, don't buy this book.  It's a teetotal disaster.  You're better off reading those old Star Trek fictions that are just weird as mess.  There were many good ideas that could have gone somewhere, especially in a world where even non-humanoids could wield magic, but it instead chose to be creepy and meandering, with characters you didn't care about.

Short Version:
- Great world basis
- Faulty characters
- Too much introspection
- Deceptive book summary
- Weird philosophy on females

Wait, WHAT?!  They're making a MOVIE based on this crap?  Hollywood, I'm not sure you've ever been lower...

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