Sunday, May 29, 2016

Book 40: Just some more rambling about Xanth nothing to see here move along.

It's really kind of remarkable what Piers Anthony has done with Xanth. He's created a fantasy series in which there's action and brain-teasers, but the silly puns and lighthearted nature of the book belies the seriousness of some of the scenes. For example, when I first sat down to write this I was going to say that there's no real horror to the battle scenes, nothing grim or epic in Xanth the way there is in Middle Earth, say, or even Narnia, to take a lighter-hearted example.

But that's not true, entirely: In one of the books there's a siege of Castle Roogna, and there are deaths galore, as well as a pitched battle involving vampires, goblins, harpies, zombies, soldiers, and a giant spider.

(Giant spiders seem to be a staple in fantasy books: Harry Potter, The Lord of The Rings, and Xanth have all had one. I can't remember one in Narnia but that doesn't mean there wasn't one.)

The lighthearted feel of Xanth is, though, in stark contrast to most of fantasy writing that's out there. I think that (plus Anthony's admittedly somewhat simple writing style) causes many people to downgrade or disregard the series -- or to honestly dislike it the way Andrew Leon does -- because while there are epic quests and horrible deaths and demons and the like, it's all portrayed in a sort of Saturday morning cartoonish feel.

The Color Of Her Panties continues that combination of quests-and-kids-stuff feeling, as a former side character, Mela the Merwoman, decides to go find a husband, and ends up joining forces with a dissatisfied ogress, a mystery human woman, and some teenage folk who have to help a friend take over as a chieftain of the goblins. What got me started on thinking about where Anthony might fit in the pantheon of fantasy writers was a couple of things.

First, early on in this book Anthony essentially undoes an entire plotline from the earlier books. The main plot here is Gwenny Goblin having to finally take over as chief of her mountain. In an earlier book, Gwenny's mom kidnapped a winged centaur to help Gwenny, who was crippled and nearly blind; that set off a war between the winged monsters and the land monsters, but was eventually settled with the sort of almost-deus ex machina that Anthony favors as an ending to his books; the centaur decided to be Gwenny's companion to help hide her infirmities.

At the start of this book, Gwenny has had her lameness cured by a healing spring, and she recovers a pair of magic contact lenses to help her see, so she doesn't need the winged centaur anymore and the entire book leading up to this became unnecessary. It's not clear if Anthony simply didn't care, or is on a larger path with these. Lots of times what seems to be simple throwaway stuff ends up mattering in later books, but again, the tone of the books keeps them from seeming as literary as some other fantasy.

The other thing that got me thinking about Anthony's skills was the Simurgh, which in Xanth is a bird that sits atop a tree on Mount Parnassus and occasionally dispenses wisdom. The Simurgh has been in enough books that I finally decided to see if Anthony had just made it up, because it's kind of a neat creature, having lived through three universes so far and being able to see at least part of the future.

Turns out there really was a Simurgh, at least in our mythology: it was an Iranian god that, while not quite fully a bird, was similar to the one Anthony has repurposed for his books. Anthony already has Maenads on Mount Parnassus, too, and the more you dig into Xanth the more you find bits and pieces of mythology sprinkled around amongst the pie plants.

Those pie plants and the other fun stuff of Xanth led me to decide, when we were debating it one time, that if I could live in any literary world, it would be Xanth. Harry Potter's got his dementors and Voldemorts. Middle Earth sounds horrible unless you live in Rivendell or are a king of Gondor, or maybe a hobbit provided you're not there when Sharkey takes over. Most other fantasy worlds, too, are hard-scrabble, rainy, plagued with enemies (and plagues) and otherwise not worth living in.

Anthony's worlds are different. Phaze, his fantasy/scifi world in Split Infinity seems awesome, and even the Earth he posits in his Incarnations of Immortality series seems generally okay. But Xanth is by far the greatest of his creations, should you have to go live in a literary fantasy world.

This book, too, sees Anthony mess with the fourth wall. The ogress, Okra Ogress, wants to be a Major Character, because nothing bad ever happens to Major Characters. (That's true, in Xanth: in the last invasion all the kings who were dispatched simply went to the dreamworld for a while, then came back to life.)  Okra wasn't a major character because Jenny The Elf got the job, instead; this is of course a nod to the book where Anthony put a real-life girl into his stories as an Elfquest elf, after having given her the choice of being an elf or an ogress.

This isn't the first time Anthony has done something like that. In Man From Mundania he had Grey, the Mundane Magician, read books about Xanth that were written by the Muses on Mount Parnassus and snuck out; here he makes it more overt, even having Jenny and Grey read his Author's note.

I think one of the reasons why I'm enjoying these Xanth books so much (sorry, Andrew) is because they seem so innocent. Like I said last time, they're some lighter reading that I can sort of drift along with, but they're entertaining enough to make me want to keep going. And I like that as they go along Anthony is making the stories a bit more complicated, bringing in new characters (especially nonhumans; there's not a lot of those starring in the fantasy books I've read, and while Anthony's nonhumans are mostly a lot like humans, he sometimes makes it really interesting, like the book Night Mare, told from the perspective of a dream horse.)

I think it's possible that Tolkien and Martin and Rowling are rated so highly because they paint their fantasy worlds in grim colors, blood and iron and boiling lava. That's very entertaining, but downgrading lighter fantasy like Narnia, or Robert Asprin's Myth series or Xanth simply because they're lighthearted is wrong. If you don't like them you don't like them; taste is subjective. But I think the Xanth books ought to be given more credit in the fantasy community than they seem to get.

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