A Re-Read of the first 10 pages of Piers Anthony’s A Spell of Chameleon

After a December hiatus (tangential note: I blame Christmas for that; turns out it’s not a practical idea to make a handcrafted stocking for your baby while on maternity leave), I decided to mosey into the next decade with a re-read some of my favourite Fantasy books that I haven’t touched in years.

I’m now contemplating how many of these books I’m going to absolutely HATE now that I’m reading them as an adult; by which I mean, *not* as a person who disparages children’s fiction, but as a person who can think critically and is more socially aware. In most of my research to date I have focused on 1990-2010 literature, with a brief study dipping into the ’60s. When I started my postgraduate work, though I couldn’t put a finger on why, I knew that ’70s and ’80s Fantasy didn’t appeal to me. I’m desperately hoping as I continue my re-read that the horribly misogynist pattern that I discovered in Anthony doesn’t hold up for any other books I re-examine.

After re-reading the first 10 pages of Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon (all I can stomach really), it shocked me how blatant the misogyny was. Keep in mind that I’ve been studying ’90s and ’00s Fantasy for the last decade, where authors like Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are accused of misogyny because of flat, stereotypical depiction of women (Jordan), or because of their mistreatment of the gender (Martin). And then we have Anthony, who doesn’t believe that women are people in any sense of the word. They are objects, or creatures, designed specifically to fulfill men’s “needs.” That idea doesn’t get more blatant than the chapter where the main character plants and grows a nymph in order to have her as a sex slave. (I didn’t read that far, but it all came screaming back to me as I started the book.)

As early as page 2, we have the main character introduce the supposed love of his life (the woman he wants to marry, or, at least, the women he has to marry in order to have sex with her). The passage reads:

All plants had their enchantments, but no spell could eliminate the need for light, water, and healthy soil. Instead, magic was used to make these necessities of the vegetable kingdom more available, [….].

Bink looked at the girl beside him as she stepped through a slanting sunbeam. He was no plant, but he too had needs, and even the most casual inspection of her made him aware of this.

Piers Anthony, A Spell for Chameleon, p. 1-2

So here we have a man who has brought his beloved out to a romantic lookout point in order to ask for her hand in marriage, and the first thought on his mind when he sees her is how he has “needs”. Are you swooning with the romance of it all? And what a segue-way; contemplating the needs of a plant to a needs of a man. It’s an awkward transition because there ISN’T an nice, normal, respectable way of blatantly stating that women are there to be sexual partners for men.

There’s not much more I can add to this criticism that reviewers Jason Heller and Oren Ashkenzi haven’t already said in their detailed breakdowns on why the book/series/author is horrible. They’re both worth checking out, as they each bring a unique take on the misogyny. Heller dwells into some of Anthony’s other books to flag the pedophilia that keeps cropping up. And Ashkenzi uses the text to give practical lessons on writing; his paragraph-by-paragraph analysis gives a good idea of how Anthony’s novel could have been so much better.

The one thought that does occur to me in re-reading these pages is it’ll be interesting to see whether other ’70s and ’80s Fantasy books have aged well. While reading a handful of reviews posted on other blogs, the theme that kept popping up for me is people who read the work as a teenager and loved it, but re-reading it as an adult realized what a disgusting misogynist mess it is. I wonder if this has to do with maturation (although the main character is nearly 25, he comes across more as a teenager and may appeal more to an adolescent crowd), or whether we, as readers, have become more critically aware. I’d like to think it’s the latter; the young adults of today seem to be a much more socially-conscious group than earlier generations and I can imagine a number of young adults picking up the book and immediately objecting to the obvious male gaze and objectification of women. But I can’t help but contemplate the effect this hugely popular author has had readers in the ’70s. Among all the negative reviews, there are also a number that praise the book for it’s “refreshing” take on sexuality. The very idea leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I hope I’ll be able to stomach other re-reads as my great adventure continues.

From Out of the Vault (A Poem Inspired by the Cover of Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon)

This one is a weird one, so feel free to judge and criticize my artistic efforts.

When I was 14, my English teacher set us the assignment of picking a picture or illustration and writing a poem about it. Fresh-faced 14-year-old me had just picked up Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon (1997; Xanth book 1), and – without reading the book – I came up with the idea that the cover looked like a young boy coming up with a tall-tale excuse to a stern headmaster. (Just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.)

In any case, below is my original poem. Despite its purple prose, it made me reflect on the nature of Fantasy fiction covers; on whether the cover portrays the most important scene or part of the book (rarely), or whether the cover matches the narrative at all! Are there any covers out there that made you pause and start imagining the books content? And were you disappointed or not with the way the narrative actually went? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The promised poem:

A Child’s Dream

The principle crouched,

His face a mask of flurry,

As the boy stood there confidently,

Explaining his tardiness.

“So you see, sir,

I was right outside that door,

When my mind went allure.

The beauty of the plants and the golden light,

Was quite enchanting indeed, not to mention bright.

So I strayed of the path

To follow the sounds of a singing bird.

But what beheld my eyes,

Was fascinating, indeed.

Never such a sight was seen.

There stood groups of unicorns, a herd!

Now, I have heard before,

That if you capture one,

Then it would obey with all loyalty.

It would save the trouble, you see,

For me to walk everyday to school,

And I won’t be late anymore.

And so I crept up towards a strong looking one,

But in my haste, I forgot their pace.

And on a minor detail, that their ears do not fail.

When I realized that, God, my face turned pale.

The unicorns charged at me, with all speed

When I was swept up in mighty claws,

I soared into the air… in the clutches of a dragon!

But my fear slipped away,

When it dawned on me,

That it was your distant cousin

He was rather polite, using words such as ‘may’

He left me off, yonder…in the bushes.

When I saw before me,

A small centaur…a baby.

It was crying out loud,

Eyes filled with tears,

‘It must be lost,’ I said,

So I-”

‘Enough! Enough!’ The principle roared,

‘I could wisely guess what happened next.

It happened all too many times before.’

‘Now get to class!’

He said sternly,

Wiggling his ears with frustration,

‘And I’ll let it pass!’