Stork Naked (The Xanth Chronicles book 30) by Piers Anthony (book review).
“Stork Naked” is the 30th novel in Piers Anthony’s long-running “Xanth Chronicles” series, which has so far reached 46 books with two more scheduled for print. Piers Anthony is a prolific author of both science fiction and fantasy. His early science fiction novel “Chthon” was nominated for both Hugo and Nebula Awards and greatly impressed this reviewer.
Anthony’s flexibility and range are undeniable, as any brief review of his bibliography can attest. He has been publishing “Xanth” novels since 1977’s “A Spell for Chameleon,” which received both critical praise and concerns about misogyny as a fundamental ingredient in the setting. The “Xanth” series has continued in roughly the same vein ever since. A review of a “Xanth” book necessitates a brief overview of the series and the setting, as readers unfamiliar with it might find the rest of the review hard to comprehend.
Put simply, Xanth is a parallel world to our own, where our reality is termed the “mundane” one, and magic works in a very quirky fashion. Most of the reality is built on a solid foundation of puns, and most, if not all, of the characters have at least descriptive names and, in most cases, full-blown pun names. Female characters are often portrayed as drop-dead gorgeous, using their sexuality to fluster or bewilder the male characters. This aspect has led to accusations of misogyny. However, sometimes it works in reverse, with overly handsome males having the same effect on the women. In some ways, the males are almost insultingly vulnerable to the women’s wiles, so simple accusations of misogyny don’t feel entirely accurate to me.
“Stork Naked” is no exception to the above rules. The series often reuses characters from previous volumes. I believe Surprise the Golem, the main protagonist, is one such character, but she might have been only a supporting character previously. The main storyline starts with Surprise expecting to take delivery of her baby from a delivery stork, but due to a clerical oversight, the stork believes she is five years younger than she is, and thus too young to be a mother, refusing to deliver the baby. She sets out to fix the error and retrieve her baby, but, being currently responsible for babysitting two half-demon children, resolves to take them along. Thus, a party including Surprise, Demon Ted, his sister DeMonica, and Surprise’s sentient and antagonistic pet bird called Peeve embark on a series of unlikely adventures.
Along the way, they meet centaurs, wizards, kings, and queens. They quickly team up with the stork named Stymy, who refused to deliver the baby in the first place, and eventually, a lonely and beautiful lady named Pyra, who has a way with fire magic. It turns out that Stymy was compelled to deliver a baby to the golem Surprise, and when he flew away from the supposedly underage Surprise, he found himself sucked through a rift to a parallel Xanth, where he found an alternative Surprise who was happy to take the baby. As he returned, the rift closed up, and it is now unclear which reality he delivered the baby to. Following this trail means the quest roams far and wide.
There are numerous encounters where Surprise must face challenges that take the form of unlikely characters or objects, which she must realize the name of, always a pun. Piers Anthony uses an odd approach to describe characters. Physical descriptions are brief, and we understand the characters more from their pun-like natures and usually humorous activities. This works surprisingly effectively, and I am not sure every writer could pull this off so consistently. At the start of the book, the reader may find this approach challenging, but as the text progresses and the style settles down, the reader becomes accustomed to the forms, and the book becomes considerably easier to comprehend.
Indeed, the first chapter is almost constant craziness to justify the various puns and odd characters, but this seems necessary to set the scene. It is worth noting that Anthony includes an author’s note giving credits to a large number of people who have provided the basic ideas for the puns and jokes. It seems that many readers of the “Xanth” series send him suggestions, and he uses them as he is inspired, including developing them into full characters. Obviously, the skill in presenting the humor is Anthony’s, but a list of 175 contributors certainly makes the book feel like it was a collaborative effort.
Once the story gets going, it does start to grip the reader. Anthony has a surprisingly strong narrative hidden just beneath the surface veneer of humor. The text is quite capable of zipping along when it needs to, and after a while, the party splits up a bit, giving the individual characters time to shine and show their worth as opposed to being wacky helpers and occasional hindrances to Surprise herself. One thing Anthony is very capable of doing is weaving a credible threat. As the story progresses towards the end of the book, it seems genuinely unclear how Surprise can achieve her quest, and a twist at the end genuinely places a happy outcome in jeopardy.
Overall, I did enjoy this book. My tolerance for puns and wordplay is quite high, and a number of them did make me chuckle or groan. But beneath the humor and crazy characters lies a surprisingly strong fantasy story. Long before the end, I found myself compelled to read on to find out how it all worked out. The potentially misogynistic parts are not ubiquitous and are relatively innocent when encountered, so I don’t think many mature readers will be offended.
If you have read any of the earlier “Xanth” series, then you probably know what to expect. It certainly seems like the series has its fans, as I can’t see a publisher continuing to 46 books if they were not selling. Fans will not be disappointed by this one, as it fleshes out some previously minor characters and provides a fun and compelling story. However, it is not necessary to have read previous books, as the story is completely self-contained and the introductions to the characters and places are well geared to the first-time reader.
Basically, Piers Anthony is a terrific author who clearly has great fun writing these books, and the quality of the storytelling shines through. I recommend this to everyone to at least try. Either you will be tolerant of the style and enjoy it, or you will find out pretty quickly that this is not for you. But to those latter readers, I extend my sympathies, as missing out on Anthony’s writing due to the style is a shame.
(pub: TOR/Forge, 2006. 304 page hardback. Price: $24.95 (US), $33.95 (CAN). ISBN: 0-765-30409-0)
check out website: www.tor-forge.com