Jason Heller wrote this excellent piece on revisiting the Xanth series as an adult, and I really recommend it: Revisiting the sad, misogynistic fantasy of Xanth
Which has subsequently made me think about my own relationship with those books. Because like most people in our general age group (I think Jason’s maybe a little bit older than me? I’m terrible at guessing ages though, so now I feel all awkward about it) I read those books in my teenaged years. Mostly because there wasn’t at that time a decent YA section in the local library, and not much of an SF/F section either. I think I ended up reading Piers Anthony because he had the advantage of being at the front of the alphabet, and had so many books out that he took up a shelf and a half all his own.
I read nearly everything the library had of his, and spent some of my pocket money on buying my own books. One different experience I had, though, was I found there was a very limited number of the Xanth books that I liked even at the time, though I couldn’t have explained to you why that was. For example, I really disliked A Spell for Chameleon. I think perhaps because I didn’t like any of the characters. The only Xanth novels I remember liking enough to read them more than once were Night Mare and Isle of View. (Though I also recall playing the Xanth videogame when it came out on PC, which was a frustrating experience.)
I do remember being really discomfited by the obsession with panties endemic to the series. (There is, quite literally, a book titled The Color of Her Panties.) Panties, which were pretty obvious shorthand for female sexuality, were used in the series as a way for women to exercise control over men; as an adult, it becomes very obvious why I found the entire thing so troubling. In fact, The Color of Her Panties was actually the book where I started losing interest in Xanth, and the last one I even attempted to read was Roc and a Hard Place when I was 15.
They just didn’t feel fun any more, and I had never felt connected to any of the characters–with the sole exception of Mare Imbirum. Who was, as you might guess, a horse.
I liked his Incarnations of Immortality series far better than Xanth, probably because I’ve never really been a fan of puns (clutch your pearls now) and the Incarnations felt like there was some meat to the stories at least. But there was some stuff I found a bit creepy in those as well, even at the time. What springs instantly to mind is the final (at the time) book, And Eternity. Which had a cool plot in it I really liked, about god being dethroned and replaced with a woman, but then on the other hand a rather major plot point in the book is a sexual relationship between a teenager named Vita and a much older male judge, which I found intensely creepy.
I haven’t read any of the books in years. I don’t have any desire to revisit Xanth, to be honest, but I kind of want to go back and look over the Incarnations of Immortality series and give it another read with a critical eye now.
On thing this does make me think about is the importance of libraries, then and possibly now. I read the Xanth books because they were there, and there were a lot of them available. I wonder who else I might have read if the collection at my local library had been a bit more diverse. I also discovered Tamora Pierce’s books because of my local library, and those had a profound effect on me.
It’s something I bring up every time someone questions the value of diversity in both authorship and characters. Considering Piers Anthony and the Xanth panty fetish, I can’t help but think it was a reflection and normalization of some incredibly sexist tropes. I’m glad even as a teenager, I felt that there was something not quite right.