In the world of literature, a long-runner might have a dozen novels over the course of a few decades. By those standards, Xanth is something else entirely. With over forty novels released in forty years, it’s a titan of the fantasy genre. Taking the time to look at the world of Xanth and its denizens is a fantastic way to get acquainted with this cornerstone of the fantasy world.
Piers Anthony never intended for Xanth to become anything like its present incarnation. In 1977, Anthony published the first of what he’d intended to be a trilogy. The original books were incredibly successful, and thus Anthony did what any sane author would do – he expanded that trilogy into a nine-novel series.
As the novels continued their success, Anthony continued expanding the series. In its current state, one can look at the first twenty-seven books as something of a mega-series, with everything coming after having a slightly different tone and focusing on many different characters.
Xanth is one of the longest-running fantasy series in the English language, with forty straight years of publishing – and with an average of about a year between novels. As of 2017, a total of 41 novels have been released and a further three are scheduled for publication. Anthony has announced that he’ll continue writing Xanth novels, largely due to the desires of his publishers.
The World of Xanth
The World of Xanth is one of fantasy, but one that’s strangely like the real world. If one was to look at a map of Xanth, one would see something that looks surprisingly like Florida, Keys and all. Most of the landforms on Xanth are based on those of Florida, usually with a particularly punny name attached.
Xanth is attached to a realm called Mundania, which is more or less the real world. Xanth can be accessed through an isthmus in the northwest, though it changes in position in both time and space in the real world. This has led to many Xanth-ians being exiled to the real world, and a fairly regular crossover of real-world people into Xanth.
Xanth, also known as X(A/N)th, is a demon that provides the powerful magic on Xanth. In the realm of the fiction, demons represent – and provide power to – various planets in order to play a giant galactic game of one upsmanship. Other demons bear the name of better-known planets, to the point where the Demon Pluto has been recently demoted to Dwarf Demon.
The Adult Conspiracy
One of the oddest running threads in Xanth is the so-called Adult Conspiracy. In a way, it’s based on the childhood notion that something about a person fundamentally changes once one reaches adulthood. In Xanth, this becomes a literal truth – and something that adults try to hide from children.
One of the biggest parts of the Conspiracy is an attempt to hide the source of children on Xanth. Yes, there is literally a conspiracy to hide where babies come from – even though storks literally deliver children in this world.
The Adult Conspiracy also goes on to physically censor foul language in the books. Foul language is “beeped” out by those who aren’t in on the Conspiracy, and often for good reason. On Xanth, these words can have a major magical reaction.
Xanth also deals heavily with sexuality, but in a non-traditional way. There is rarely a nudity taboo mentioned in the books, but underwear is considered to be too much for the average person to bear. As such, children are forbidden to be shown underwear.
All in all, the Adult Conspiracy is an excessively strange part of a story that’s already quite odd.
The Creatures of Xanth
Xanth is home to a tremendously large number of creatures. If they appear in mythology or fairy tales, there’s a good chance they exist in this world. Fauns, centaurs, goblins, zombies – they’re all in Xanth. While earlier books tend to focus largely on human characters, the later books pay a great deal of attention to these creatures.
Part of Xanth’s magic is that these creatures tend to be both sentient and able to interbreed with humans. As such, there are many half-human creatures in the realm. These creatures tend to exhibit many of the same traits as their non-human parent, but with the attitudes and intelligence of the human parent.
Every human on Xanth has a magical ability called a ‘Talent’. The vast majority of these Talents are fairly useless – they only work in very specific situations, or only do something that has no utility. Think of someone who has the ability to talk to foot fungus, but only after five PM. It’s that kind of talent.
The books mostly concern themselves with those who have Magician-Level talents. These individuals can use seriously complex magic to alter the fundamental nature of reality. These characters can talk to the dead, compel people to tell the truth, or change the rules of the world.
As the story progresses, it’s learned that talents aren’t necessarily restricted to humans. Later books in the series tend to delve into how the discovery of Talents affects the creatures who have thus far not experienced their use.
As one might expect from an incredibly long-running series, Xanth has had a host of characters. With 41 books currently published and a handful on the way, it’s impossible to detail every major character in the books. Below are a handful of the characters who have been the most important across the last forty years or writing – and even now, more new characters are joining their ranks.
Aeolus: The King of Xanth when the story begins, Aeolus declared that anyone born on Xanth without a magical talent would be exiled. Later in the series, it is discovered that most of Aeolous’ problematic actions were the result of his choice to put his soul away so that he wouldn’t age or die. Unfortunately for Aeolus, he’d still succumb to old age.
Arnolde: A centaur and the first of his race to exhibit magical talent. He was exiled from his home due to his talent, but humans treated him fairly well. He’d temporarily become the king of the centaurs later on and even becomes acting king of Xanth. His talent is an ability to create an aura of magic around his body in the non-magical land of Mundania.
Bink: The protagonist of the first two Xanth novels. Bink is initially exiled from Xanth because he does not appear to have a talent, but he secretly has one of the most powerful talents of all. Bink cannot be harmed by magic, and his talent goes out of its way to subtly manipulate events to save Bink without revealing his protection. He briefly serves as King of Xanth.
Dawn: Twin sister of Eve. Marries Pick a Bone and has two children – one a human and one a skeleton. Has a magical talent that allows her to know anything about the animate, which is fairly lucky given her relationships.
Dolph: Dawn’s father. His magical talent is related to metamorphosis. Main protagonist of two of the Xanth novels.
Dor: The son of the original Xanth protagonist Bink. Dolph and Ivy’s father. Has the power to make almost any inanimate object speak. Another temporary King of Xanth.
Eve: Dolph’s daughter and Dawn’s somewhat less interesting sister. Has the power to know all about the inanimate, the opposite of her sister. Probably best known for fighting over a boy with her sister in an early appearance.
Grey: Has the magical power to nullify magic, which is a huge deal on Xanth. Father of the Triple Sorceresses, Consort of Xanth, and captain of Xanth’s star ship. A generally interesting fellow who is married to Sorceress (and future King) Ivy.
Humfrey: The 17th King of Xanth, also known as The Good Magician. He is the master of information and has the magical talent of finding the answer to every question. A notable character in every Xanth book, he also shows up in a number of unrelated works by Piers Anthony. Generally a good guy, as his title and the name of his home (the Good Magician’s Castle) would imply.
Ida: If someone presents a feasible idea to Ida, that idea will come into fruition. The catch is that the person presenting the idea can’t know about her power. Ida is also orbited by a small moon that contains everyone who has lived and will live on Xanth. This includes another version of Ida, who has an orbiting moon and so on until the whole cycle become recursive.
Illene: She can make illusions real. Iris and Trent’s daughter. Her powers aren’t limited to realistic illusions – she can actually make metaphors into reality.
Irene: The green-haired sorceress of plants. Dor’s wife. Protagonist of two books in her own right. The second female king of Xanth. Her powers were declared to be on the same level as a magician.
Iris: First female king of Xanth. Protagonist of two books. Very smart and a little bit devious. Has incredible powers when it comes to illusions, which she can make reach into the non-magical world.
Ivy: Ivy can enhance anything in her presence, whether in terms of quality or in terms of ability. Dor’s daughter and the mother of the Triple Sorceresses. Ivy was the protagonist of three Xanth novels.
Kadence: The daughter of the first cyborg on Xanth. Has the power to make anything move in step.
Murphy: Makes things go wrong. He was temporarily exiled, but he was able to come back after promising to be loyal to the monarchy. Temporarily King of Xanth.
Ragna Roc: He’s a magician and also a bird. Has the power to turn real things illusory and illusions into reality. Sadly, Ragna Roc cannot reverse what he has already done.
Surprise: Sorceress who can use any magical talent exactly one time. Fortunately, she has quite an imagination so she’s not as limited as one might expect. Delivered by the stork to her parents at the age of five, thus her name.
Tallyho: The magician who assigns all the magical talents to children. Descendant of another magician with the same talents.
Trent: 19th King of Xanth and one of the major characters in the novels from the very beginning. Trained by Humphrey and known at first as an evil magician for trying to usurp the throne. Married Iris and ended up ceding the throne to Bink’s son Dor.
The Triple Sorceresses: Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm. Daughters of Ivy and Grey. They can accomplish anything while they are playing music. If they play together, they become exponentially more powerful.
Xanth is a notorious long-runner in the fantasy genre. While there has been some argument as to the quality of the later books, one cannot argue that the series has managed to last because it has a strong fan base. As of mid-2017, there are 41 main entries in the series with another three currently schedule for publication. Below are brief summaries of all the books that are already available for purchase.
- A Spell for Chameleon (1977): Bink is exiled for not having a talent, meets Chameleon and brings Trent back to Xanth.
- The Source of Magic (1979): Bink journeys to find the source of magic in Xanth as Trent ascends to the throne.
- Castle Roogna (1979): Dor travels to the past to find the Zombie master.
- Centaur Aisle (1982): Dor is left as temporary king and must find Trent – possibly by travelling to the home of the Centaurs.
- Ogre, Ogre (1982): A half-ogre travels Xanth as a bodyguard, dealing with the problems for several young women and one of his own – increased intelligence.
- Night Mare (1983): Xanth is threatened with an invasion by barbarian, mundane horsemen. In atypical Xanth fashion, that actually means men who ride horses.
- Dragon on a Pedestal (1984): The search for Princess Ivy and a spell on Gap Chasm are the main plot points of this 1984 novel.
- Crewel Lye: A Caustic Yarn (1984): A story in a story featuring Princess Ivy. The story of Jordan the Barbarian.
- Golem in the Gears (1986): The tiny Grundy sets off to find Ivy’s Dragon.
- Vale of the Vole (1987): Esk Ogre seeks out Humphrey to protect his family. The only problem is that Humphrey has gone missing!
- Heaven Cent (1988): Prince Dolph picks up where Esk left off in an attempt to find Humphrey.
- Man from Mundania (1989): Third in a trilogy. Ivy uses the Heaven Cent to find Humphrey.
- Isle of View (1990): Not able for starring Jenny, who was based on a real Xanth fan killed in a hit and run accident. She has to save a winged centaur from a group of goblins.
- Question Quest (1991): Lacuna looks for a way to change her boring life.
- The Color of Her Panties (1992): Perhaps the most cringe-inducing name of a novel in all of history. A mermaid looks for a mate and finds underpants.
- Demons Don’t Dream (1993): Two mundane teens are sent to Xanth to compete for a magical talent. Shipped with a video game.
- Harpy Thyme (1993): A goblin-harpy looks for love.
- Geis of the Gargoyle (1994): Gary Gargoyle attempts to purify the Swan Knee.
- Roc and a Hard Place (1995): Metria tries to summon a stork but gets sent on a quest instead.
- Yon Ill Wind (1996): A hurricane blows a mundane family into Xanth and the titular demon makes a bet.
- Faun & Games (1997): A faun searches for his friend and ends up on a series of moons orbiting Idas.
- Zombie Lover (1998): Breanna attracts the ardor of the King of the Zombies. Not a great position for a new comer to Xanth to be in.
- Xone of Contention (1999): Revisiting the video game characters from Demons Don’t Dream. Another trip to Xanth, but now two Xanth characters go to Mundania.
- The Dastard (2000): The Dastard is the worst. He can travel in time and undo the best moments in the lives of others. Fortunately, he runs into both a woman who is resistant to his magic and someone equally as evil as himself.
- Swell Foop (2001): Cynthia Centaur and crew go after the six rings of Xanth.
- Up in a Heaval (2002): A demon hurls a red spot at Xanth. This is rather worse than one might expect.
- Cube Route (2003): Short, a bit silly, and contains one of the most unlikely sentences in the English language.
- Currant Events (2004): The Muse of History seeks a currant to clarify the history of Xanth.
- Pet Peeve (2005): Goody Goblin finds a home for a terrible bird and finally gets over the death of his wife.
- Stork Naked (2006): Surprise summons the stork, but it won’t deliver her child. Thus, she sets out on adventure to find the baby.
- Air Apparent (2007): A typically punny murder mystery in Xanth – to say more really gives away too much.
- Two to the Fifth (2008): A young cyborg defies the wishes of both his parents in order to write plays.
- Jumper Cable (2009): Jumper Spider is stuck on Xanth. He also has to deal with Pluto, who’s not terribly happy about his demotion to Dwarf Demon.
- Knot Gneiss (2010): Wenda, Jumper, Ida and friends transport petrified reverse wood when no one else will.
- Well-Tempered Clavicle (2011): A walking skeleton fights a plague of puns. Somewhat cathartic for those who have tired of all the puns in the novels.
- Luck of the Draw (2012): Elderly Bryce is transported back to Xanth in a new, youthful body in order to compete for the hand of a princess.
- Esrever Doom (2013): Kody is the only person in Xanth not affected by a horrible spell. Only this new arrival can save Xanth.
- Board Stiff (2013): Irrelevant Candy gets turned into a literal board. No, really.
- Five Portraits (2014): Sequel to Board Stiff.
- Isis Orb (2016): Hapless hates his talent. He also hates that he has no luck with women. Fortunately, Humphrey may be able to help.
Surprisingly, Xanth has not had many adaptations in other media. Part of this is likely due to the imagery and sheer weirdness of Xanth, which makes it hard to put on screen. While most of its contemporaries have at least rated a terribly disappointing movie, Xanth has been almost entirely confined to the page.
Perhaps the best known adaptation of Xanth is the computer game Companions of Xanth. The game follows roughly the same plot as Demons Don’t Dream and is actually a fairly straight retelling of the same story. While not a particularly lauded game, it did do a fine job of capturing some of Xanth’s spirit.
The SP Entertainment Group has announced plans to adapt Xanth in both television and film formats, but nothing’s really come from those announcements yet. It’s unknown if the adaptation will be animated or live, or even how the two projects might be related to one another. With that said, it is as close to a solid announcement of Xanth’s future as has ever been put to print.
What does the future hold for Xanth? As long as Piers Anthony has a say in matters, there will probably be more books. It’s one of the few novel series that really doesn’t need any adaptations to help with its popularity – by now, there are literally generations of fans who have read the books and who are eagerly awaiting the next releases.
How do you feel about Xanth? Have you read all the novels? What do you want to see from the series as it goes forward? If you want to discuss this epic novel series in more depth, be sure to visit us at the LitRPG Forum.