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Well-Tempered Clavicle by Piers Anthony

When I was young and still sufficiently full of the joys of spring, I was one of those sad completists who insisted on collecting first editions of everything written by a favoured author. Sometimes, the target was an author of genuine quality that everyone agreed was a master. On other occasions, the choice would be made because it was actually difficult to find first editions. The chase can be more exciting than the reading and it was a kind of competition with other collectors. I had some titles on my list for years before I finally managed to track down a fine copy. Needless to say, Mr Jacob (better known as Piers Anthony) was one of those I collected. He’s one of these remarkable people still writing as he edges slowly towards his eightieth birthday and, to celebrate my decision to stop reading him in 1990, I decided to have a look at the latest Xanth book, the thirty-fifth in that series.

All this needs a few more words of explanation. Piers Anthony has always been fascinatingly frustrating. He’s fairly prolific having published some 140 books. Not bad for someone who’s struggled with dyslexia all his life. Writing professionally, he’s both in love with words as words, and a natural storyteller. There are times when passages are beautiful to read. Equally, some of the novels have very strong plots. But, when he gets the words and the stories together, there are few people better. The drawback is the hit-and-miss quality. I remember Macroscope and On a Pale Horse as excellent. Some are so dreadful they were rejected by publishers when first submitted and only later released after he’d established his brand name with Spell for Chameleon, the first Xanth book and a blockbuster of epic proportions. Spell is so good even my wife who usually hates anything with magic in it, not only enjoyed it, but also asked to read the second in the series.

Piers Anthony still looking pretty chipper

For those who have never opened a Xanth book, they describe a magical world in which all content is subordinated to the need to generate puns. The first two, or possibly three, are fresh and fun. My inability to finish the twelfth was what finally killed my collecting bug for him. By then, I had all the early and most difficult-to-find books. Enough was enough. I just couldn’t take any more of the forced humour and the non-existent plots. Even the other fiction was dying with flat prose, shallow characterisation and simplistic moralising.

All of which brings me back to Well-Tempered Clavicle. My curiosity bump got the better of me and I actually asked to review it. I need to start with a bold assertion. In my opinion, most of the books written by authors in their seventies and beyond are poor. As a part of the ageing process, authors tend to drift away from the sensibilities of the real world and write based on their memories of the old world. In particular, the dialogue loses its contemporary feel and, often, the plots lack any cultural resonance to current events. Despite his apparent continuing popularity, would Piers Anthony’s decision to continue writing be justified? It’s hardly the case he needs the money. He could have retired in comfort years ago and lived on the royalties of the Xanth books alone.

Well, the answer is predictable and sad. The prose is almost completely wooden and, if I dare dip my meaty oar into the puddle of crit eek (that’s piss from an incontinent animal and the noise you make when you almost step into it), the plot is even worse than I imagined possible. We have a couple of skeletons, two animals and a bird off on a quest for adventure and to discover their magical abilities. Deep sigh. We don’t seem to have moved on from the original Spell for Chameleon. Indeed, many of the references are to characters I remember from the first titles in the series. On the way, they pick up a Princess who’s looking for someone to love and somewhere to live. Fortunately for her, the answer may lie in a moveable castle and solving the problem of Pundora’s Box. And then there are the unfortunate scenes like Charon’s price for poling our heroes across the Styx is feeling up the woman who’s showing them the way. Or a woman who likes to be used with violence so she turns herself into a sword to be used endlessly by a man killing puns. Except he gives up on this job when someone inconveniently points out he himself is a pun. Well, to be precise, he kills himself with the sword. Needless to say the woman who became a sword is not a happy bunny and so resolves to track down and take her revenge on the big mouth who ended her killing spree — all she will need is someone to pick her up and wield her when she turns into a lethal weapon. Note the hilarious quality of all this. Well, perhaps it’s the way I’m telling it. You might enjoy it more if you read the original.

Indeed, Well-Tempered Clavicle is more of the same. If you have liked all the other Xanth books, you will love this. It’s the same heavy-handed puniness remorselessly pursuing you up the Gap and back again. Having ploughed through this latest addition to the pack, it confirms the original decision I made back in 1990. Piers Anthony is definitely not for me. Hopefully my happy memories of some early books are justified, but I no longer have the will to open them. Suppose it turns out they are all as awful as this latest effort.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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