Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book 88: A rather humdrum outing in Xanth this time.

If I'm going to rag on guys like Grisham for having a formula for what they write, then I suppose I ought to do so for Piers Anthony, as well; Harpy Thyme, as the 17th book in the Xanth series, is enjoyable enough, but the parts that make it fun are the parts that don't feel like they've been done 16 times before.

In Harpy Thyme, Gloha the winged Goblin-Harpy crossbreed sets out to find true love, and begins with (of course) a trip to the Good Magician. That was also the inception of the plot for at least 1, and possibly 2, other Xanth stories. Once she gets to the Good Magician, she is told that rather than do her year's service, she should go see Humfrey's first son.  This, too, has become commonplace for Anthony: the Good Magician doesn't actually require a year's service of any of the questioners who are the stars of the books; in this case, though, it makes little sense to not require the service because in fact he has answered her question -- so Gloha, who is not a Magician (usually exempt from the service) and who performs no other task for Humfrey (another way of getting out of the service) simply gets an answer that she doesn't have to pay for.

So Gloha sets off to find Humfrey's first son, and there is a rather pointless (but possibly meant to be charming?) series of visits as she goes to one more-or-less random person after another to try to find out who Humfrey's son might be, before she literally just sort of stumbles across him. The [SPOILER ALERT] son turns out to be Crombie, which readers might have known; I can't remember if that was mentioned in an earlier Xanth novel.

Gloha asks Crombie to use his talent for finding things to point to the direction of her dream man; he does, and she then sets out with Magician Trent, who is youth-potioned for this story.  From there the story takes the typical sort of Xanthian twists and turns, all of it very familiar by now to anyone who has read the previous 16 books.

As I said, it's enjoyable enough; I use the Xanth books as filler and I was reading this one while I was tremendously busy and also a bit under the weather, so I didn't mind that it was simple, but it would be nice to see Anthony spread his storytelling wings a bit more with the Xanth books. As I was reading it I kept thinking of the really good Xanth books: Night Mare and Crewel Lye are two of the best, and Castle Roogna also a great one, and none of them really follow the same pattern as what has come to be the typical Xanth storyline: a person sets out with a question for the Good Magician, only to get a nonanswer of sorts, and then work through the question him- or herself on the course of fulfilling the seemingly nonsensical task Humfrey has given them.

The book did flesh out and elaborate on some characters; the demon Metria expands as a character, and Trent becomes a bit more human than he was in the first 2 or 3 novels, where he barely appeared, so there's that (we get to know Trent's Mundanian history, a bit, and it turns out he was friends in some way with Van Gogh, a detail about which I can make up my mind: interesting? or too much?)  The puns are good, as always, but overall the story was only a middle-of-the-road Xanth book, not one of the great ones, not one of the bad ones, either.

A couple of things that particularly stood out as minor annoyances: there was a sequence in the book where two people, I believe meant to be from Mundania, were stumbled upon and put in touch with each other, and it all had the feel of some sort of inside joke or Easter egg type thing, but since the book is almost 25 years old, it was nearly impossible to even make sense of the joke, and it threw me out of the story for a bit.

Also, Anthony is replaying entirely too many bits from earlier books: we get another round of "the Curse Fiends force someone to put on a play," and the whole "we have to put on a play to get past this challenge" thing is really a Xanth trope by now.

The whole thing with Crombie and Humfrey was just a throwaway: Crombie was always a fascinating character: a soldier, woman-hater who married a nymph and had had a secret demon girlfriend growing up, Crombie (we're told) hates his father, Humfrey, for how he treated him -- but the two become instant friends again just right smack out of nowhere. Then the story drops them entirely.

And, there were a couple of things that made it seem as if the idea behind the book had changed. For example, the title: at points in the story, there were mentions of the "thyme" plant as it exists in Xanth -- slowing down time for people -- but they never connected up to make it really "Harpy Thyme" in any way, and Gloha isn't actually a harpy; there were some madness-inspired flashbacks that talked about some sort of cave Gloha found that was filled with artifacts and she had to be rescued, but that never went anywhere, either; they were just sort of thrown in there. All of Anthony's other titles for the books ultimately made sense once you read the book ("Crewel Lye" for example was the way they cleaned the Roogna tapestry to see Jordan The Barbarian's story).  This title just felt like it was unrelated entirely

Some things that worked well, though, were the crushes on Trent that both Gloha and a winged centaur Trent transformed 70 years ago had, and Trent's reaction to them; and the final scenes when Gloha and the others have to storm up Mount Pin-A-Tuba (for reasons related to the plot that I won't disclose) are actually pretty exciting.

Overall, the book was a C+, and if it was my introduction to Xanth it probably wouldn't have been strong enough to keep me reading. Then again, who starts a series at book 17? Anthony is lucky that any reader who made it this far is probably like me: willing to forgive the weaker stories in hopes that  the full magic will be restored, as it were.  The first 8 books were really strong, but of books 9-17, only Man From Mundania stands out, although both Harpy Thyme and Demons Don't Dream had their merits.

 I still plan on finishing all of the Xanth books eventually; a man's gotta have goals.  I just hope that in the upcoming 19-already-written (and apparently 7 more planned) Anthony tries to recapture the best of the Xanth writing, instead of just churning out more of these.


Andrew Leon said...

I'm pretty sure I never read this one.
And I think you're out of luck in expecting these to get better. These were not the books that Anthony wrote as serious pieces, and, once he started taking fan suggestions, the series dropped down several notches in quality.

Briane Pagel said...