Castle Roogna (1979) Book Review and Analysis
by Piers Anthony
Whew, this novel. I got this book for free and that was the only acceptable price. I don’t “hate read” novels, but I knew from the back cover that this one would give me some interesting things to write about!
Castle Roogna is not part of a series, but a novel set in the same setting as some other novels in the “Xanth” fantasy universe.
Xanth is a magical realm where almost everything is magic. The trees, the people, the animals, etc. There are typical fantasy creatures, such as gnomes, golems, witches, harpies, etc, and magicians. Xanth is not the only area of the world – there is Mundania, which is full of regular people called Mundanes. Get the joke?
The story is as follows: Dor is a 12-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood. His housekeeper/nanny named Millie is in love with a zombie named Jonathan. Dor has a crush on Millie and decides he wants to help her in her desire to bang a zombie. His king sends him to a magician who says he can locate a “bring back to life” potion if Dor travels 800 years back in time to find it. Long story short, Dor goes back and takes over the body of a Mundane man who is like 30, but Dor still has his magic. What is Dor’s magic? He can talk to inanimate objects. A spider somehow made it back with him and is transformed into a massive spider (gross) and they team up to complete the quest. In the first five minutes Dor meets a young lady, who turns out to be, you guessed it, Millie. Oh, I forgot to mention she was a ghost for 800 years before being resurrected as his nanny.
I'm going to include the back cover plot here, for your pleasure.
"Millie, a ghost for 800 years wants only one man--Jonathan, and
he's a zombie. To prove himself, Magician Dor volunteers to get
the potion that can restore Jonathan to full life. But he has to go
back through time to do it, to a peril-haunted, ancient Xanth,
where danger lurks at every turn..."
First, I’ll get into what I enjoyed. It’s jam-packed with a ton of fantasy and mythological tropes/characters, which was kind of fun. Despite his lack of depth, I did like the main character, Dor, as he was a good kid wrestling with the societal conceptions of “manhood” that oppress him (the patriarchy holds down other people in the novel far more, but for a scrawny kid, I get his angst). The book is a coming-of-age story for him where he does learn that his integrity, compassion and brains are what make him a man, not his muscles or sex drive. That was nice.
Unfortunately, all the other characters, especially Millie, were flat as a sheet of drywall. The love story in the novel is pathetically underwritten.
The action scenes were fun and the other characters were interesting, though lacking entirely in backstory. I never expected my favourite character in a novel to be a spider. I hate spiders. I have extreme arachnophobia. We were in this cool cave in Ireland a couple of years ago, and because I saw a spider on a light on the way in, I pretty much cried the entire walk. I did the hike, but I was freaking out. But, Jumper (quite a cute name actually), was an absolute joy in his confusion over human actions and his carrying of the team. Go giant spider?
The story moves quickly but at the same time is rather dull. Some scenarios could have been removed entirely and the plot would have stayed the same. It’s supposed to be a little funny, I guess, or at least not entirely serious as other “high” fantasy, but most of the humour was situational or based on old stereotypes.
I recommend it to absolutely no one and afford it 2 /5 Zombie Masters.
Analysis / Rant - Here be Spoilers!
This novel was written in 1976, just coming down from the Sean Connery James Bonds, with their stellar depiction/treatment of women. This novel does not treat women well. This analysis turns into a rant that I hope you'll find amusing.
Some history about the author first! Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob, according to Wikipedia. He has stated that one of his greatest achievements has been to publish a book beginning with every letter of the alphabet, from Anthology to Zombie Lover. He’s 85.
I wonder what he’d think of his female characters from Castle Roogna now.
And I thought Rogue Queen had a lot to talk about! But unlike that novel, there is nothing redeeming about the approach to women in this novel. I don’t “hate read” things, but man the notes I took on this one.
I’m going to go over Millie in detail, then the four other female characters: Medusa, Helen the Harpy, Vadne, and Irene in less detail. Then a lightning round of my favourite sexist comments/scenarios!
Who is Mille? What does she dream about? What does she want to do with her life? What are her goals? What was her youth like? Here’s all we know about Mille:
“Mille was very like a nymph, with all sorts of feminine projections and softness and things”.
What are nymphs? According to this book they are “ideally shaped female creatures of little intellect”.
“Do you know what Millie’s talent is?”
“I thought that was something all women had.”
“Something all women wish they had.”
First of all, spoken like a true douchebag. Second, her sex appeal only works on men and it’s also not apparent if its’ a real “talent” or the king was making a joke. But that’s her main deal. She’s stereotypically attractive, she’s a fucking idiot, she screams (I started doing a tally) at least 20 times in the novel, she shakes her feet and whips her hair a lot, she has no talents other than cooking and … that’s it. We know nothing about her. Oh, wait, we do know that, according to herself, is “a little diffident weak soft maid.” She isn’t being sarcastic here. She's the WORST.
She is a maid from the country. True, she probably only has domestic skills, which is fine. But, there's nothing preventing her from picking up a sword or a bow. Or reading. Or having a hobby. Millie would have been an interesting character if she had shown some sort of personality or desire to do something. Other than being the impetus for the quest in the first place she contributes NOTHING to the story. NOTHING. Take her out and it’s all the same, except that Dor doesn’t have anyone to lust after. She never rescues Dor, she never does anything other than offer to fuck the zombie master.
That leads me to Mille and the Zombie Master, Jonathan. I guessed it from the instant we met him. I actually like the guy. Basically, he won’t help King Roogna because he’s a misanthrope. Millie offers to “tarry” with him if he’ll do it. He jumps at the idea but ends up just talking to her (about what?) and falls for her and asks her to marry him legit. She falls for him? But we don’t see this - we're told it by Jonathan in like two sentences. We don’t know why they like each other. Millie, based on her “sex appeal” talent, could get whomever she wants, but she chooses him. I’m not saying she shouldn’t, but I don’t get her attraction to him because she has no personality. And neither does he.
Dor is also constantly oogling Millie. His focus on her would have been permissible or perhaps even kind of funny as a boyish infatuation if she weren’t so objectified. But his obsession with her looks is unpalatable given its frequency.
There is a centuries-old cultural narrative which commodifies and objectifies women’s bodies. It’s still thought in some circles that women’s bodies are "inherently sexual" and men are inherently unable to resist them. This not only ignores and negates non-hetero desire but is insulting to men and women. Women, in some places, are still expected to not “distract” men or lead them on with their natural sexuality – hence the focus on covering up women’s bodies. Examples today include purity rings, the emphasis on virginity in most religions, school dress codes. That’s what makes Millie so frustrating. If this were something to laugh about in the past, like we do some Victorian ideas, sure, but this concept is still happening and it’s terrible.
That brings me to The Harpy Queen.
Half woman half bird. In this novel, it’s posited that this a creation of humans having sex with vultures. What? Cross-species fertilization wouldn’t work that way but, anyway, we all know harpies are ugly-ass bird creatures with women bodies.
Then we have Helen, the Queen of the harpies, who is apparently hot, except for her "shrill" speech, of course.
Her motivation in the novel is cliche and derivative in the extreme: her fertility. Apparently “there’s nothing so bitter as an old harpy with an empty nest”.
At least Helen is a woman in power. And she doesn’t statutory rape a 12-year-old. Good job?
Speaking of spinsters: Vadne
As a mature woman, she gets no male gaze at least. Too old, I suppose.
Vadne shows up around page 250 and was a breath of fresh air… for five pages. Then she turns into one of those bitter old spinsters. Her backstory is that she asked one of the magicians to marry her and was refused, so now she “ was a driven woman on the prowl for a marriage that would complete the status she craved”.
Because women can’t be king, Why? We don’t know. That’s just the way it is in Xanth. (*Cough cough* Patriarchy.) It’s annoying because you have this fantasy land that still functions under the same constraints as our world, but without critiquing or challenging those constraints.
And because women are seen as useless when they are unwed, Vadne is forced to become what she is criticized for. She can only find validation through a man, but society is the one that puts these stipulations on her.
And, of course, in the end, she murders Millie to try and get the Zombie Master to marry her. Because women be backstabbing each other over men. That’s what we do?
The only funny thing about this is that she killed her in the women’s bathroom and it takes the guys so long to figure it out where the corpse is because they never thought to look there.
We all know the story of Medua right? Turns dudes to stone and Persues uses a mirror to kill her. Yay. You killed a rape victim who had been cursed by the gods for being too attractive and was just defending herself again. Good job, man. What an ally.
Anyway, Medusa makes an appearance in this novel as simply Medusa. No complex backstory, no mention of the horrible treatment and why she was turned into Medusa. Here description when she first arrives is the most male gaze thing I've ever read.
Her inclusion in the novel is convoluted filler and it's frankly insulting to the myth.
11 years old. A princess with the power of making plants grow. But she can’t be king, because only a male magician can be king.
Irene and Dor don’t get along. They bicker. He’s mean to her. She resents that the only way she’ll be Queen is if he deigns to marry her when they’re older. Legit anger, I get it.
She’s been at odds with Dor for years, but while he’s away, the Brain Coral (I’m not going to get into what this is), possesses his body and approaches Irene. He asks her about what it’s like to be her. We don’t see this conversation. We don’t see her subsequent kiss with Brain Coral Dor. We only see Dor approach her to apologise for his body kissing her (he is a good kid), but all it takes is this one convo with a boy who teased and insulted her for years for her to change her mind about him? Give me a break. It's an easy out for Dor and gives him a reward for his quest, which is a future wife.
How to Fix This Novel
Update the ages. Dor is 15 and Irene is 14. They both go to the tapestry somehow (kind of like how the spider got there) and they are forced to work together to complete the quest. Spider can be there too. Irene and Dor grow together as the story progresses and they have personality arcs. Maybe they become friends, not exactly romantic partners. Maybe Millie is there too, but as a contrast or perhaps has a better characterization? That would have been a better story, not just better for gender roles.
But, we don’t get that. Dor gets his little coming of age story that gives him self-confidence and the women get nothing.
Lightning Round of Sexism!
Dor kills a dude in self-defence. “He has heard of girls being upset about losing their virginity; now he had an inkling what it felt like. He had lost something he knew he could never recover. How could he ever get the taint from his soul”?
I don't think I need to explain how fucked up this comparison is.
“Maybe it wasn’t his muscles so much as her lack of mass; she was featherlike though firmly fleshed. There must be a special magic about girls like this, to make them full yet light.”
You, sir, are carrying a mannequin.
“What the use of trying, where there are no cocks to please?” Yep. That’s in there. It’s a joke, because it’s the Harpy talking about male harpies, but come on.
“There would always be a market for lovely nude girls”. Of course there will be, as long as the Trumps and Woody Allens and Roman Polanskis of the world are allowed to roam free without persecution. Guess nothing has changed since 1976.
There is this weird scene where Dor talks to the centaur who is impotent. Apparently, his girlfriend, Celeste, had given him a potion to make him this way. He figures out how to reverse the spell and decides he’s going to go home and when she starts to “tease” him, he’ll have a surprise for her. This was incredibly disturbing, especially given the way it’s worded and the fact he calls her a bitch. And we have no idea why Celeste did this – maybe he was too pushy, maybe she was evil, maybe it was a prank that went wrong. We don’t know. All we know is: ewwwwww.
We’ll end on a positive note. It’s Jumper the giant spider to the rescue!
“But” Dor says, “Suppose she – she belongs to another - ?”
“There is no ownership in this sort of thing. She will indicate whether she finds you suitable,” Jumper, explained.
How come a giant goddamn spider is the one who has to suggests that women don’t have to pick the man that wants them? To steal from the fabulous Bechdel Cast podcast: Feminist Icon Giant Spider.
Well, I hope you enjoyed that rant. I can’t even with this novel.