Stories are told in the halls of Mythcreants of the day Chris did battle with Eragon’s first chapter and emerged bloody* but victorious. It has been a difficult search, but I have found a nemesis of near equal awfulness, so that I may also be lauded a hero of the literary battleground. That’s right, it’s time to look at chapter one of A Spell for Chameleon, the first book of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. Xanth is a sprawling behemoth of 39 novels, with more still on the way.
Join me as I delve deep into the pit that is A Spell for Chameleon’s first chapter, and in so doing discover important lessons for writers everywhere.
Start Your Book With Something That Matters
A small lizard perched on a brown stone. Feeling threatened by the approach of human beings along the path, it metamorphosed into a stingray beetle, then into a stench-puffer, then into a fiery salamander.
Bink smiled. These conversions weren’t real. It had assumed the forms of obnoxious little monsters, but not their essence. It could not sting, stink, or burn. It was a chameleon, using its magic to mimic creatures of genuine threat.
Yet as it shifted into the form of a basilisk it glared at him with such ferocity that Bink’s mirth abated. If its malice could strike him, he would be horribly dead.
Sooo, we start with three paragraphs about a lizard sitting on a rock. This lizard gets introduced even before Bink, the protagonist. And yet, the lizard doesn’t do anything. It’s kind of neat that this lizard can make itself look like other animals, but it isn’t using that power to accomplish anything.*
I’ve seen lots of authors make the mistake of starting with exposition or worldbuilding rather than immediate conflict, but usually it’s in the name of establishing some vital element. This lizard doesn’t even tell us much about the world. I guess Anthony just really liked the symmetry of starting his story with a chameleon.
That’s all well and good, but if your title reference only sits on a rock, then it’s worthless. In order for the lizard to be effective, it needed to be tied into plot somehow, preferably through conflict. If Bink had been hunting the lizard, thereby searching for an animal that can look like anything, Anthony could have had his symbolism and forwarded the plot at the same time. Instead we have three wasted paragraphs.
Don’t Make Your Protagonist Sound High
[The lizard gets eaten by a hawk. So much for that.]
This realization continued to percolate through Bink’s emotion. The chameleon was harmless—but most of untamed Xanth was not. Was this some twisted omen, a small suggestion of a dire fate awaiting him? Omens were serious business; they always came true, but usually were misinterpreted until too late. Was Bink fated to die brutally—or was some enemy of his?
The first few pages of a story need to anchor us in something we can understand. This is especially true in weird fantasy settings, where everything is strange and magical. A main character with understandable motivations is a great way to ground the reader and keep them from getting lost. Instead, Bink’s POV is a mess.
First, realization is “percolating” through Bink’s emotion. People realize things
At best, these are the thoughts of someone wandering aimlessly through the forest, a boring way to start a story. As it turns out, that’s not even true. We’re about to learn that he came out here with a very specific purpose.
Don’t Be a Sexist Creep
[Some description about how all the plants and animals have low-level magic abilities.]
Bink looked at the girl beside him as she stepped through a slanting sunbeam. He was no plant, but he too had needs, and even the most casual inspection of her made him aware of this. Sabrina was absolutely beautiful—and her beauty was completely natural. Other girls managed to enhance their appearance by cosmetics or padding or specialized spells, but beside Sabrina all other females looked somewhat artificial. She was no enemy!
The opening description of Sabrina as a “girl” made me think she was a young child, and then all the lustful description was super creepy. Thankfully, we learn later that both Sabrina and Bink are nearly 25, but there’s no way to tell that from this paragraph. In this case, simply describing Sabrina as a “young woman” would have fixed the problem.
Of course, almost every line about Sabrina is still sexist even when applied to an adult. First of all, sex is a want, not a need.* Describing Bink’s “needs” here makes it sound like Sabrina is obligated to provide him with sex. Next, we have a standard obsession with “natural beauty,” and some nice shaming of all those other girls who have to use “cosmetics” or “padding” to look good. Silly twits, why didn’t they choose to be born beautiful?* And then we’re told Sabrina makes other girls look “artificial.” Does that mean they all look like robots? That’s what I’m going with.
Beyond the sexism, Bink’s POV is even more unhinged. Anthony spent almost an entire page describing animals, plants, and Bink’s inner thoughts before mentioning Sabrina. This violates the rule of establishing the most important elements first and makes it seem like Bink didn’t know she was there. Then he describes her appearance like it’s new and amazing to him, even though we’ll soon find out they’ve known each other a long time. Anthony tries to cover this with “even the most casual inspection,” but there’s no reason for Bink to inspect her.
Then there’s the line declaring Sabrina is no enemy, which is meant to relate back to the omens Bink was thinking about. It fails for three reasons. One, Anthony put a paragraph of plant description between them, which weakens the connection. Two, all the description of Sabrina’s attractiveness makes it sound like Bink thinks someone so hot could never be evil. Three, we’re about to find out that Bink knows Sabrina well, so he had no reason to think she was an enemy in the first place.
I haven’t yet figured out what Bink is on, but I think I want some.
Avoid an Exposition Overdose
They came to Lookout Rock. This was not a particularly lofty promontory, but its situational magic made it seem more elevated than it was, so that they could look down on a quarter slice of Xanth. This was a land of multicolored vegetation, small pretty lakes, and deceptively quiet fields of flowers, ferns, and crops. Even as Bink watched, one of the lakes expanded slightly, making itself seem cooler and deeper, a better place for a swim.[This goes on for six more paragraphs, with long descriptions of trees and lakes, Bink considering Xanth’s animal life, and no mention of Sabrina at all.]
We’re supposed to believe that Bink is up at this romantic spot with a woman he’s obviously obsessed over, and his thoughts are focused on the local terrain? Nuh uh, I don’t buy it, even if Sabrina wasn’t so hot that she made other women into robots.
This page of description is meant to establish how absolutely everything in Xanth is overflowing with magic, from the plants and animals down to the bodies of water.* This is important for us to know, since it’ll feature heavily in this book and others. But if Anthony wanted readers to absorb the information, he needed to introduce it in an interesting way, not a full-page exposition dump.
For example, what if Bink and Sabrina are lost, and they wander past that lake that’s making itself look more appealing? The lake lures them in with predatory intent, and we get to see how magical the wilds are while at the same time getting excited over whether the main characters will get eaten.
Don’t Imply Your Protagonist Is a Centaur (Unless They’re a Centaur)
In the midst of all this description, one bit really stands out.
…As a child he [Bink] had driven parents and friends almost to distraction with his “Why is the sun yellow?” “Why do ogres crunch bones?” “Why can’t sea monsters cast spells?” and similarly infantile prattle. No wonder he had soon been hustled away to centaur school…
Oh my god is Bink a centaur? I really want him to be a centaur. And it could be true, too. At this point we know nothing about what Bink looks like, and this is a wacky fantasy setting where anything can happen. We only have one line about a lizard being afraid of humans to imply Bink’s species, and that lizard could have been scared of Sabrina. Plus, Bink being a centaur might explain his bizarre thought patterns. Who knows how centaurs think?
I’m calling it: Bink is a centaur.
Okay, so I checked the wiki and Bink is not a centaur. It’s too bad, because if he were a centaur, this would be a good way to let us know. Since characters aren’t likely to go around casually thinking about what species they are, a clever writer might instead drop a reference to the protagonist’s school for centaurs. Instead, Anthony probably means a school taught by centaurs. In a fantasy setting, it’s perfectly reasonable for the reader to wonder what species the protagonist is; you can’t count on them assuming human.
Get to the Damned Point
Anthony’s description of the magical wilderness goes on for an entire page, where we learn all about the fantastic world of Xanth in the driest way possible, before something interesting finally happens. Sabrina speaks!
“What did you wish to talk to me about, Bink?” Sabrina inquired demurely.
As if she didn’t know. But as his mind formed the necessary words, his mouth balked. He knew what her answer had to be. No one could remain in Xanth after his twenty-fifth birthday unless he demonstrated a magic talent. Bink’s own critical birthday was barely a month away. He was no child now. How could she marry a man who was so soon to be exiled?
Why hadn’t he thought of that before bringing her out here? He could only embarrass himself! Now he had to say something to her, or suffer further embarrassment, making it awkward for her as well. “I just wanted to see your—your—”
“See my what?” she inquired with an arch lift of eyebrow.
He felt the heat starting up his neck. “Your holograph,” he blurted. There was much more of her he longed to see, and to touch, but that could come only after marriage. She was that sort of girl, and it was part of her appeal. The girls who had it didn’t need to put it on casual display.
Well, not quite true. He thought of Aurora, who certainly had it, yet who—
Hey, we’re finally getting somewhere. Bink is about to be exiled because he doesn’t have a magical talent,* and he’s brought the love of his life to a secluded part of the forest so he can propose to her before it’s too late. But now he’s overcome with internalized shame over his perceived inadequacies.
By golly, I think we’ve finally found the plot. Too bad about those wasted pages that came before, but I suppose we can’t have everything. This bit has conflict, tension, and worldbuilding that’s actually important because it tells us about the magical talents everyone but Bink has. We’ll need to know that later. In fact, two lovebirds about to be forced apart by unfair cultural rules is a great premise for a story.
But then it gets marred by a steaming load of misogynistic language. It wasn’t enough to shame all the “other girls” for using cosmetics, now Bink is going to shame them for being sluts, too. Not like Sabrina, who’s of course pure and innocent. Because heaven forbid women have sex before they meet their true love/obsessive protagonist.
Even the wording is bad. How exactly do those other girls flaunt something they don’t have? And while we’re on the subject, “holograph” is a terrible name for a fantasy power. Sounds too much like something out of Star Trek.*
Understand What Your Protagonist Is Thinking
“Bink, there is a way,” Sabrina said.
He glanced sidelong at her, then quickly away, confused. She couldn’t be suggesting—
“The Good Magician Humfrey,” she continued blithely.
“What?” He had been on quite a different track, no credit to his willful mind.
“Humfrey knows a hundred spells. Maybe one of them—I’m sure he could find out what your talent is. Then everything would be all right.”
Oh. “But he charges a year’s service for a single spell,” Bink protested. “I have only a month.”
First, I’m calling poor form on “protested.” Most of the time you shouldn’t use fancy dialogue tags unless they really add something. “Said” and the occasional “asked” will usually do the trick nicely. In this case, it’s actually obvious from Bink’s words that he’s protesting. The fancy dialogue tag adds nothing.
In this section, we continue the theme of Bink’s internal thought process being all over the place. First, he was so uninterested in Sabrina he seemed to forget she was there. Then she was so hot he knew she could never be his enemy. Then he spent several paragraphs thinking about anything but her. Now he thinks having sex will somehow solve his exile problem. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting that sudden line cut off.
The result is a point of view that feels disconnected from reality, which is why I won’t stop joking that Bink sounds like he’s high. To avoid this confusion, Anthony should have weaved Bink’s feelings for Sabrina together with the setting description. This would have been easy if, say, the magical wilderness somehow put Sabrina in danger.
But hey, at least we have a direction for the plot now and a potential cost. Hopefully, they’ll soon be off to this Humfrey fellow, and we can get on with things.
Understand How the Human Body Works
[Bink and Sabrina discuss going to see Humfrey for a couple paragraphs.]
Bink stared down at his hands, pondering. His right hand was normal, but he had lost the middle finger of his left hand in a childhood accident. It had not even been the result of inimical magic; he had been playing with a cleaver, holding down a stalk of coilgrass while he chopped, pretending it was the tail of a dragon. After all, a boy could not start to practice too early for the serious side of life. The grass had twitched out of his grip as he swung, and he had grabbed for it, and the cleaver had come down hard on his extended finger.
Hang on, what the hell happened? Picture the above scenario in your mind. Bink loses his grip on the coilgrass and reaches out for it. How on Earth* could he have reached out in such a way that exposed his middle finger and only his middle finger to the cleaver? Unless he tried to grab the coilgrass by flipping it off, there’s no way the injury could have happened the way Bink describes it.
Unlike all the talk about trees and rocks, this bit of exposition actually matters to Bink’s character, or at least it should. But instead of absorbing how this trauma shaped him, I’m stuck trying to figure out the physics of how it happened and coming up blank.
It’s starting to feel like A Spell for Chameleon was written by an alien who’d only ever heard of humans by description. Hey, ET, do your research next time!
No Seriously, Don’t Be a Sexist Creep
[Bink thinks about how his finger couldn’t be reattached. Then debates going to see Humphrey some more, and then we see Sabrina’s “holograph,” a magical talent for shaping colored smoke into temporary sculptures, in this case a blue-dressed girl. This power is described as useless. Finally, Bink seems to commit to going to see Humphrey.]
“Oh!” Sabrina exclaimed, clapping her hands to her pert derriere. The holograph dissolved, the blue-dressed girl distorting grotesquely before she vanished. “I’m on fire!”
Bink stepped toward her, alarmed. But even as he moved, there was loud juvenile laughter. Sabrina whirled furiously. “Numbo, you stop that!” she cried. She was one of those girls who was as appealing in anger as in joy. “It’s not funny.”
It was, of course, Numbo who had given her a magical hotseat, a fiery pain in the posterior. Talk about a useless talent! Bink, his fists clenched so tightly that his thumb jammed into the stub of his missing finger, strode toward the grinning youth standing behind Lookout Rock. Numbo was fifteen, cocky and annoying; he needed a lesson.
Numbo is using his powers to essentially grope Sabrina. That’s sexual assault, and it’s treated like a joke. Anthony goes out of his way to describe how Sabrina is hot even when being attacked, first by his description of her butt and then by just saying she’s still pretty while angry. She also whirls around furiously and shouts that it’s “not funny,” which is the way she might react if Numbo had dropped some rotten eggs on her head.
And Bink isn’t even a little worried about her. He doesn’t check to see if she’s okay or even think about it. Sure, he’s angry at Numbo, but angry in a “you messed with something that’s mine” way. Bink is angry because his day was disrupted, the same way he’d be angry if someone gave his car a flat tire.
All together now: women are people and should be written as such. Don’t write protagonists who treat women like objects unless you’re really interested in challenging those harmful beliefs. Sexual assault isn’t funny, and it doesn’t somehow become funny because you add magic. Don’t use sexual assault to power your comedy routine. This scene is just gross, and it would be poison even if the rest of the chapter were good.
Don’t Introduce Your Magic Like a Grocery List
But Bink’s foot struck a loose rock, which turned his ankle long enough to cost him his balance. It didn’t hurt, but it interrupted his forward progress. His hand swung forward—and his fingers touched an invisible wall. There was another shout of laughter. Bink hadn’t crashed headlong into the wall, thanks to the providential stone under his foot, but evidently someone thought he had.
“You too, Chilk,” Sabrina said. That was Chilk’s talent: the wall. It was a kind of compliment to Sabrina’s talent; instead of being visible without substance, it had substance without visibility. It was only six feet square; and, like so many talents, it was strictly temporary—but it was hard as steel in the first few moments.
This invisible wall is the third magic power we’ve been introduced to. Before this, Sabrina’s power was dismissed as useless, and we’ve already covered why Numbo’s introduction is awful. It feels like Anthony is listing off powers that he wrote down ahead of time: “Okay, I gotta find time for an invisible wall in here somewhere.”
We’re stuck with this dull parade of abilities because the first chapter lacks meaningful conflict. Sabrina first shows off her power while standing undisturbed in the woods. Even when magical, molesting teens attack, the action is watered down by description reassuring us that Sabrina is still hot.
And when there’s finally a bit of action, it’s interrupted by an awkward description of a stone. Why doesn’t Bink slam headlong into that invisible wall?* That would have made quite the impression. Sabrina’s power of shaped smoke could have been introduced when she used it to blind the creeper who was trying to set her on fire. Something like this…
Example Bink’s lowered shoulder slammed into an invisible barrier and he bounced back, the momentum of his charge transformed into sharp pain. The transparent wall’s creator howled with laughter somewhere in the trees. Sabrina’s melodious voice rang out, shaping brightly colored smoke into a thick shroud around them. The distraction bought Bink just enough time to roll aside as a wave of orange flames scythed into the spot where he’d fallen.
Bink’s lowered shoulder slammed into an invisible barrier and he bounced back, the momentum of his charge transformed into sharp pain. The transparent wall’s creator howled with laughter somewhere in the trees. Sabrina’s melodious voice rang out, shaping brightly colored smoke into a thick shroud around them. The distraction bought Bink just enough time to roll aside as a wave of orange flames scythed into the spot where he’d fallen.
Don’t Make the Village Kids Sound Like Monsters
[Bink chases the “pranksters” around for a while and feels impotent for having no magic, but eventually Sabrina insists they go home. For some reason Bink reconsiders going to see Humphrey. More description of magic trees. And then a long paragraph of history about an evil warlock who turned a dude named Justin into a magic tree.
Justin the Tree’s special power is to talk without a mouth, and he apparently gives good advice, so Bink and Sabrina decided to go ask him about what Bink should do, perhaps to give Bink yet another chance to change his mind. When they reach Justin, this happens.]
But the voice of the tree came again, a bit misplaced in relation to Bink and Sabrina—evidence of poor concentration. “Friends, please fetch the King quickly. These ruffians have an axe or something, and they’ve been eating locoberries.”
“An axe!” Sabrina exclaimed in sheer horror.
“The King is out of town,” Bink muttered. “Anyway, he’s senile.”
“And he hasn’t summoned more than a summer shower in years,” Sabrina agreed. “Kids didn’t dare make so much mischief when he had his full magic.”
“We certainly didn’t,” Bink said. “Remember the hurricane flanked by six tornadoes he summoned to put down the last wiggle spawning? He was a real Storm King then. He—”
There was the ringing sound of metal biting into wood. A scream of sheer agony erupted from the air. Bink and Sabrina jumped.
What the hell is happening in this town? It seems there’s a berry around that teenagers eat on purpose and it turns them into homicidal murderers that only a hurricane-summoning king can control. Seriously, Bink and Sabrina’s first instinct upon encountering these “ruffians” is to go for the king, though apparently he’s useless now. Do parents not take any interest in what their kids are doing? What kind of nightmare dystopia is this town?
So I know from reading ahead that Bink’s village is not meant to be a dystopian nightmare. Plus the way he and Sabrina stop to consider what things were like when they were teenagers* suggests they don’t think this is a big deal, even though in the previous line Sabrina reacted with “sheer horror.” The impression of terribly dangerous teenaged murderers isn’t done on purpose; it’s just that Anthony is way too casual with his descriptions of violence.
From the first page, this chapter has a very choppy feel. First we started with no conflict whatsoever; in fact, nothing was happening at all. Then suddenly we jump to the village kids committing sexual assault and then threatening murder on the local sentient tree. That’s some narrative whiplash right there. Don’t worry, it’s about to get worse.
[Bink charges over to stop the tree murderers, but they’ve already fled. He finds out from Justin that they were a group of teens named Jama, Zink, and Potipher. Jama summons swords, Zink does something with illusions, and Potipher creates deadly poison gas. Bink’s had a run-in with them before, where they nearly killed him with their magic. Bink recalls his reaction to that incident.]
He had blamed Jama and Zink and Potipher. Bink had no magic, but, perhaps for that reason, he was the huskiest boy in the village. He had had to fight as long as he could remember. He was not especially well coordinated, but he had a lot of raw power. He had gone after Jama privately and demonstrated convincingly that the fist was swifter than the magic sword. Then Zink, and finally Potipher; Bink had hurled him into his own gas cloud, forcing him to dissolve it very suddenly. Those three had not sniggered at Bink thereafter; in fact, they tended to avoid him…
Without meaning to, Anthony has painted the picture of a town beset by hordes of murderous teenagers. From this description and what we’ve already seen, I’m assuming there’s a high body count. What else could there be when teens attack with magic swords and poison gas? It sounds like anyone not lucky enough to have strong defensive magic is toast.
I think this is just supposed to read as teenagers giving each other a hard time, but it doesn’t work for a few reasons. First, these kids are pretty damned lethal, and death isn’t very common in teenaged roughhousing. Second, Bink and Sabrina are nearly 25. That big a difference in age would make it unlikely they’d even interact much with the town’s teenagers, let alone be targets of harassment. Third, if Bink has such a reputation as a badass, why is he still a target for bullies? Bullies are usually really good at picking on targets who can’t fight back.
Instead, this feels like an organized campaign of mayhem. Really, this place sounds so terrible that if I were Bink, I’d be eager for exile.
Don’t Offer Excitement and Then Pull It Back
[Bink goes to find some medicinal “sponge” plants for Justin’s injury. There’s even more boring exposition about the world, but then Bink realizes it’s getting late.]
Dusk was intensifying. Dismal shapes were rising out of the forest, hovering as if seeking prey. Eyeless and formless, they nevertheless conducted themselves with a disquieting awareness, orienting on Bink—or seeming to. More magic was unexplained than was safely catalogued. A will-o’-the-wisp caught Bink’s nervous eye. He started to follow the half-glimpsed light, then abruptly caught himself. The lure of the wisp was sheer mischief. It would lead him into the wilderness and lose him there, prey to the hostile magic of the unknown. One of Bink’s childhood friends had followed the wisp and never returned. Warning enough!
Night transformed Xanth. Regions like this one that were innocent by day became horrors as the sun sneaked down. Specters and shades came out, questing for their ghastly satisfactions, and occasionally a zombie ripped free of its grave and marched clumsily about. No sensible person slept outdoors, and every house in the village had repulsion spells against the supernatural…
Yes, now we’re talking. Bink’s out past dark, and the forest is super dangerous around here at night. There’s specters and shades and zombies, oh my! No doubt we’re about to get an exciting chase through the woods as Bink flees to safety, undead grasping at his heels.
…Bink did not dare use the shortcut back to Justin Tree; he would have to go the long way, following the looping but magically protected trails. This was not timidity but necessity.
Or I guess he could just take a longer route home. No reason to actually use these undead-infested forests the book spent a long paragraph establishing, no sir. I can only imagine this is foreshadowing for later, when Bink actually will be in danger, but why not give that foreshadowing some extra teeth?
Instead, this chapter continues to waffle between no conflict at all and bands of murderous teens. But even the murderous teens don’t provide much conflict. They all flee when Bink goes after them, and their motivations are nonsensical. Why not make use of this haunted forest instead, which could have provided interesting conflict and built up the world at the same time?
Picture this: Bink and Sabrina sneak out into the woods for a good old-fashioned make-out session away from prying eyes. But for Bink, this is something more. He means to propose to Sabrina, and this might be his last chance. But his doubts and self-loathing are too strong and he can’t do it. Then the lovebirds realize they’ve stayed out too late, and they have to either sneak or fight their way back through the haunted forest. At the end, their shared danger makes them even more into each other, but they can’t be together because Bink will be exiled soon. Such drama!
Or we could keep going with the book as written, I guess. That sure sounds like fun.
OH MY GOD DON’T BE A SEXIST CREEP
The next couple pages are a flashback to a time when teenaged Bink tried to grow a magic nymph that’s somewhere between a slave and a sex doll. It’s unclear how much intelligence the nymphs have, but they will flee if some part of the ritual is performed incorrectly.
I’ve finally hit my limit and will not put any of that text in my article because it’s disgusting. This is apparently a common practice in Xanth, and just describing it makes me sick to my stomach. Fortunately, we learn that Bink never actually got a nymph because his mother freaked out and didn’t want her son to have his very own rape slave.
Any relief we might have felt is swept away when Bink’s father has a “man to man” talk with Bink. In this talk we see Bink’s mother portrayed as overprotective and unreasonable, but they have to do what she says because women, amiright?
Finally, because there is no God, Bink’s father puts Bink off the idea of growing a nymph by telling Bink about this super hot yet “soft spoken”* girl named Sabrina who’s just moved into town. Bink can go hit on her instead!
After reading this section, I feel a little bad for saying the Wheel of Time was sexist. It totally is, but at least Robert Jordan made some modicum of effort to show the women in his world as empowered, even if he wasn’t very good at it. Piers Anthony’s views on women when he wrote this chapter do not bear thinking about.
End Your Chapter With a Hook
A light ahead brought Bink back to the present. Someone was standing by Justin Tree, holding a magic lamp. “It is all right, Bink,” Justin’s voice said in the air beside him. “Sabrina brought help, but it wasn’t needed. Did you get the sponge?”
“I got it,” Bink said.
So his little adventure had been no adventure at all. Just like his life. As Sabrina helped him pack the sponge around Justin’s wound, Bink realized that he had decided. He could not go on this way, a nonentity; he would go to see the Good Magician Humfrey and learn what his own magic talent was.
He glanced up. His eyes caught those of Sabrina, glowing by the light of the lamp. She smiled. She was even more lovely now than she had been when he first met her, so many years ago, when they had both been adolescents, and she had always been true to him. There was no question: Bink’s father had been correct about the advantages—and frustrations—of a real live girl. Now it was up to Bink to do what he had to do—to become a real live man.
This hurts me, but I’ve got to give A Spell for Chameleon a small amount of praise. In a better story, this could have been an effective ending to the first chapter. It’s got Bink and Sabrina together in a moment that affirms their relationship despite the troubles they’ve been through, and more importantly, it ends with a hook. Bink’s overcome the problems in the first chapter, and now he’s off to see Humfrey the Magician. What will happen next? We’ve got to read to find out!
Of course, the rest of the chapter ruins any good that might have come from this ending. For one thing, Bink has gone back and forth about going to see Humfrey three or four times now, so at this point his decision is extremely suspect. Is he really going to see the magician, or will he just change his mind next chapter? And it’s odd that he suddenly feels like his “little adventure” was for nothing. What adventure did he think he was on? He walked on magically protected paths through the woods.
Also, what’s up with that “someone” holding a lamp. Is it Sabrina? Someone from town?* I don’t know. There’s a mystery figure there holding a lamp while Bink and Sabrina work. If the “someone” is meant to be a nameless villager, Anthony should have clarified because now it’s just confusing.
But of course, the real problem with this ending is that interactions between Bink and Sabrina are damaged beyond repair by the book’s misogyny. No scene of them together can be free of that corruption. Even now, he’s thinking about how she’s worth her “frustrations.” What frustrations are those exactly? She’s been nothing but accommodating to him this whole chapter. I guess her having free will is frustrating to him. When Bink decides he’s going to go see Humfrey so he can be with Sabrina, I can only hope he gets lost in a bog somewhere and never bothers her again.
The Chapter Overall
While Chameleon isn’t quite as bad as Eragon in terms of wordcraft mistakes, it’s still really awful, and the unending stream of sexism, which I’m told gets worse, makes it hard to get all the way through. Not even the idea of Bink being a centaur makes rampant misogyny okay.
From a technical perspective, Anthony squanders his first chapter on a meandering train of worldbuilding for a world that seems pretty nonsensical to start with.* It’s a very long first chapter, over 11,000 words, but instead of using that length to build a foundation for what is to come, Anthony drags it out from one boring location to another.
After 11,000 words, about the only thing I could tell you for sure about Bink is that he’s upset because he doesn’t have magic. I think he’s in love with Sabrina, but even that’s hard to tell when he drifts off into long speculations about nearby topography. Based on his actions, I’d have told you he was a young teenager, but he’s supposedly almost 25. I’d also tell you he’s extremely indecisive, but I can’t figure out if that’s an intentional trait or just bad writing.
Most of this chapter is unsalvageable, but there is one element we might be able to get some use out of. Earlier, I outlined what the story might have looked like if it had focused on Bink and Sabrina going through the woods together.* The opening paragraph for that story might have looked something like this:
Example Bink buried his face in Sabrina’s golden locks and tried to summon the courage to ask the question burning in his mind. But he couldn’t ask her for that kind of commitment, not when he was a man without prospects thanks to his lack of magic and looming exile. Courage deserting him, he lay back on the floor of the clearing and stared at leafy green branches stretching overhead as the sun dropped lower. Nestled in Bink’s arms, Sabrina turned and murmured, “Was there something you wanted to ask me?”
Bink buried his face in Sabrina’s golden locks and tried to summon the courage to ask the question burning in his mind. But he couldn’t ask her for that kind of commitment, not when he was a man without prospects thanks to his lack of magic and looming exile. Courage deserting him, he lay back on the floor of the clearing and stared at leafy green branches stretching overhead as the sun dropped lower. Nestled in Bink’s arms, Sabrina turned and murmured, “Was there something you wanted to ask me?”
This way we introduce conflict in the first sentence and tie it into the relationship of our main characters. Of course, even that wouldn’t work for A Spell for Chameleon, because if you’ve read ahead then you know Sabrina isn’t even Bink’s real love interest. But still, we can dream.
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