First reaction to this: “hm.”
To this day, I’m deeply torn over Xanth (despite liking Incarnations of Immortality better). I’ve never thought Piers Anthony a particularly good writer, and he has the depressing anti-ability to start each series on its high point and get worse with each book. And Xanth was always a fairly shallow farce that essentially repeats one joke—the literalization of puns—over and over.
That said, I did read it well past the age bracket the author talks about. I only discovered the books when I was thirteen, actually.
I’d had a near-fatal asthma attack and was hospitalized for a week, then isolated inside my air-filtered room for three months. In the hospital, I had exactly one book—Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, which I’d been given over the summer and was re-reading when I went into the hospital. (Another, uh, problematic text, though McCaffrey was a much better writer and less fratboyish about her issues in any case. I adored Lessa and re-read it countless times.)
While I was still hospitalized my dad bought a box of twenty-odd Xanth books to give me something else to read. I did, and I enjoyed them, despite not really caring for farce. But by “them,” I mean the editorialized version in my head more than what’s actually on the page. I completely agree with the horrorshow that is the Chameleon arc; I would skip over her scenes as much as possible on re-reading. Iris is written in repellent terms, yet I loved the character, and her daughter Irene after her, along with Trent, Vadne, Jonathan, and Murphy.
I’m not quite as harsh on it as the article writer (I don’t think the downplaying of the critical importance of magic in-world is really in good faith), but fundamentally, I can’t disagree. The Xanth I loved wasn’t the Xanth that Piers Anthony wrote, so much as a mentally corrected Xanth with its intolerable aspects excised or ignored, and its good parts vastly amplified.
The good parts do exist, however, which I feel the author largely ignores. As a reader, it’s fair for the pervasive and disgusting misogyny to blot out everything else, but as analysis … eh. Partly, I’m sure, this is sheer nostalgia, although I did re-read my favourites (Castle Roogna, Night Mare—yes, the only palatable female lead was a horse—and Man from Mundania) through high school and as late as my early twenties, with progressively less enjoyment. But still, some enjoyment. There’s never been a jarring re-read where I discovered the relentless misogyny, since I recognized it all along; it just became a little worse each time.
I haven’t re-read any Xanth books in a long time, and I don’t really have any intention of re-reading them again. But there were concepts thrown in there that I still find compelling. The base concept of a world where mages aren’t a special elite minority in themselves, but instead everyone is a mage and magic pervades every aspect of life—I thought that was fascinating. At least as far as I read, Xanth was never remotely a “normal” story + fantasy in the way that similar things often are, but its own strange reality, down to the bones. I’d never encountered that before; everything I’d read was “x but with dragons” or “x but with magic” or “x but in space.” You could call Xanth “Florida but with magic,” but that doesn’t begin to touch how utterly bizarre it is.
I didn’t care for the puns, but some of the consequent powers were things I’d never have imagined and found incredibly engaging, most successfully with Magician Murphy, at once a joke character—his power is inflicting bad luck wherever possible, i.e. anything that can go wrong, will go wrong—and one of the most nuanced villains in the series. I was interested in the social structure hinted at in a world grounded on magic and degrees of magical power. He shows people with “spot on the wall” talents (trivial and pointlessly specific) to powerful but sharply restricted ones (as with Bink’s father Roland) to sub-Magician ones like Vadne’s and Irene’s, to the sheer variety among the world-class Magicians and Sorceresses (transformation, illusion, bad luck, zombies, clairvoyant tapestries…).
These are small things, weakly executed—“(some) good ideas, bad execution” is how I’d describe Anthony in a nutshell—and yet they brought excitement and interest to my life when I was sick and unhappy and lonely. The inevitable longing for all those things that fascinated me in Xanth without the baggage of … well, Xanth, is what drove me to try writing a fantasy novel of my own. That project has grown far beyond its roots in “everyone has magic like Xanth but no puns and none of the icky sex stuff and it’s heroines and princesses and ruling queens all the time,” but it’s been my main outlet and main sanctuary throughout my life.
In the end, I know how profoundly gross and offensive Anthony’s novels are. Yet I do think there are legitimate reasons beyond “comic fantasy” that they became so popular, which this article very much skates over. And I can’t help feeling grateful for them, nonetheless.