Xanth: The Quest for Magicby Piers Anthony
Piers Anthony has a reputation for being a hack, which is not entirely deserved. Yes, many of his books are mind-numbingly formulaic. But he is a versatile writer, capable of good stories, with intriguing ideas and appealing characters. (It's hard to believe that the person who wrote the light-hearted Xanth series is also responsible for "In the Barn" in Again, Dangerous Visions.)
Usually, the first book in one of his series is quite good, with an increasingly sharp dropoff in quality and originality after that - to the point that any books after the third one should probably be avoided.
Xanth: The Quest for Magic includes only the first three Xanth novels, and therefore gets a qualified recommendation. As expected, the first is the best. "A Spell For Chameleon" won the August Derleth Fantasy Award in 1978. It introduced the pun-infested land of Xanth, where everyone has a magical talent - everyone except Bink, who must find his talent or be exiled. The story is fresh, unpretentious fun, and at the time, was very different from the typical Tolkien-inspired fantasies that filled the shelves.
The second novel, "The Source of Magic," features Bink's further adventures, and is not quite as good. It's entertaining enough, but the jokes start to feel a bit flat, and the surprises are less surprising.
In "Castle Roogna," the protagonist is Bink's 12- year-old son, Dor, who has the magical talent of talking to inanimate objects. This is the weakest of three. It has its moments, but by the third one, the joke has run its course, the story has become far too predictable, and the magical puns grow tedious.
Even more tedious is the sexism that infests Xanth. Anthony's attitude toward women is from the Dark Ages. Oh, he's no John Norman. There's no malice involved, just ignorance. It's easy to overlook at first, given the lighthearted tone of the stories, but it grows more and more grating the more you read.
With that caveat...Anthony is no J.K. Rowling, but children who can't get enough Harry Potter will enjoy this book. There's some sexual innuendo, but it's likely to go over the heads of younger kids, while older kids have undoubtedly seen worse on TV.
This volume, released in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Xanth, features a new introduction by the author. He talks about how he came to write the Xanth books, and the origins of several elements of the Xanth universe. He also defends his series, now over two dozen books long and much scorned by the critics. He argues that Xanth was never meant to be great literature; it's just entertainment.
He has a point. You won't strain your brain reading this book. But in these days of anthrax and Enron, Saddam and snipers, sometimes you need something frothy, fast-paced, and escapist, with nothing unexpected and a happy ending guaranteed. The Quest for Magic fills the bill nicely.