Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Jest Right

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Jest Right (2020)

[In this review I have used the actual chapter headings from the book.]

Curse
Jess has a curse – nobody takes her seriously. She sets off to see Good Magician Humfrey about getting rid of the curse. She arrives at the last rest stop before the Good Magician’s Castle, and meets an attractive man there – a man she would like to be with. He tells her his name is Magnus.

She introduces herself and tells him she is going to see the Good Magician. But as usually happens, he thinks she is joking, because of the curse. She is tired and frustrated, and bursts into tears. And Magnus realises that she had been serious.

He tells her he is a showman. His talent is verisimilitude, the semblance of truth; he can make things seem real. Intellectually he can accept that she is serious, but emotionally he feels that it is all a joke.

They both strip and enter the nearby pool to wash up. He tells her he is going to see the Good Magician to ask about obtaining an assistant for his show – to warm up the audience and make them laugh. He thinks Jess could be that assistant.

Jess tells him that once the curse is abated, she will want a good man. And that she is attracted to Magnus.

But Magnus points out that the thing that would make her a good assistant is that nobody takes her seriously. But this wouldn’t work if her curse is gone. And while she has the curse, they cannot be in a romantic relationship.

But then he says he could fake the romance. They could pretend to be lovers and hug and kiss. She says she is willing to accept this.

They proceed to hug and kiss, while naked in the water. But Magnus’s body is not responding to her; at an emotional level he can’t take her seriously. But they agree to continue in this pretend relationship.

They leave the pool and get dressed. Then they hear a child crying. They follow the sound and find an 8-year-old girl. She had left the enchanted path and then couldn’t find her way back to it. She tells them her name is Myst; her talent is that she can transform into mist. They lead her back to the rest stop.

Myst tells them she intends to meet up with her sisters and brother who are on Fibot, the Fire Sail Boat – a magical boat that flies through the air and has a fiery sail. (This is the boat from the book “Fire Sail”.) She expects it to be at the Good Magician’s Castle the next day.

As they eat supper, Magnus and Jess explain their relationship to Myst. Myst doesn’t believe anything Jess says, so Magnus explains about the curse. (This becomes a pattern in the story: as people get to know Jess, they understand when she is being serious, and are able to interpret what she says to other people.)

Myst tells them she has run away from home, because she thought her parents wanted to be alone together, to “summon the stork”. She is worried that Jess and Magnus also want to be alone together, but they assure her this is not so. She is quite welcome to stay the night with them.

Myst tells them about her background – how Astrid (a basilisk turned human) and Demoness Fornax had rescued her and four other children from a future version of Xanth which was about to be destroyed, as described in “Five Portraits”. The five children were not related, but became so close that they regard each other as siblings. They were adopted by five different families. Myst’s sisters Win and Squid, and her brother Santo joined the crew of Fibot in “Fire Sail”.  Myst’s other brother, Firenze, remains at home with his adoptive parents.

Since Myst’s siblings don’t know she is coming, she will have to go to the Good Magician’s Castle, which would require her to pass the Challenges the Magician sets for people coming with Questions. Jess and Magnus are going there too, so they can go together.

But then Jess and Magnus realise they no longer have Questions to ask the Good Magician. Magnus has Jess as his assistant, and Jess has decided to live with her curse.

They discuss Magnus’s show. Magnus plans to travel from village to village. He also mentions that pretty girls tend to throw themselves at him – it’s a complication of his talent – and so he doesn’t want to stay too long in one place. They might want him to settle down with them. This is another advantage of having Jess as a girlfriend – it shows that he is taken.

But how will they travel between villages? It would require a lot of walking, and this would limit how much equipment they could take. Myst suggests that they should travel on Fibot. And this means they need to go and see the Good Magician after all.

Challenges
In the morning, Jess discusses with Myst the fact that she had run away. Surely her parents will worry about her absence. She tells Myst to send them a message when she gets on the boat.

Myst tells her how she was adopted by a woman called Merge (in “Five Portraits”) and then Merge had married a man called Hapless (in “Isis Orb”). Merge had originally been five sisters, who discovered they could merge into a single woman, in “Board Stiff”. If necessary, she can split up again into the five sisters.

They hear someone calling. It is Blue, one of the five sisters who make up Merge. The other sisters are Brown, Black, Red and Yellow, named according to their hair colour. Merge had split into her components to look for Myst.

Myst apologises to Blue for making them worry. She explains that Jess and Magnus have been looking after her – that they had become an ad hoc family – and that she is going to Fibot to join her siblings. Blue agrees to let her do this. She knows that Dell and Nia, who are in charge of the boat, are responsible adults.  She disappears as she merges back with her sisters.

So Jess, Magnus and Myst set off for the Good Magician’s Castle. They tackle the Challenges as a group.

In the last of these, they find themselves in the middle of a hedge maze. There is a sheet of paper on the ground with the word “ANSWER”. They navigate the maze easily, but then find themselves at a wall with doors numbered 1 to 50. Which door should they choose? Maybe the sheet of paper would tell them. They return to the centre of the maze. But the paper just has the word “QUESTION” on the other side, and there is nothing on the ground underneath.

But then they realise that the passages of the maze form the number 42. Maybe this is the number of the door they should choose. Does the number 42 have any other significance? Myst realises this is the number of the Xanth history chronicle relating to the Fire Sail Boat, written by Clio, the Muse of History. (These chronicles, of course, correspond to the novels of the Xanth series.) And Jess, Magnus and Myst want to go to the Fire Sail Boat.

They return to the wall of doors and open door number 42. Inside they meet Wira, the Good Magician’s daughter-in-law. She takes them to a garden, where Rose of Roogna, the current Designated Wife of the Month, is watering her roses.

They help her with the watering. Rose is able to feel Magnus’s and Myst’s magic. She warns them all not to touch the roses as the thorns could be cruel.

Rose’s garden contains five kinds of roses: red for Love, white for Indifference, yellow for Friendship, pink for Romance, and black for Death. People come to the garden to prove their true feelings.

Jess accidentally touches the stem of a red rose, but the thorns do not harm her. Rose says that this shows that she is in love. But Jess says this won’t do her any good.

Rose wonders about Jess’s magic; she feels that it is repelling her. Jess tells her about her curse.

Rose says she has been cultivating experimental new varieties of roses. She indicates a large brown rose, and tells Jess to pick it. Magnus and Myst immediately feel the difference: they are both able to hug Jess without faking it. Rose tells them that this variety suppresses magic in the person who holds it. Jess’s curse has been nullified temporarily for a day or so until the rose wilts.

Rose tells them that the Good Magician is indisposed. They will have to see him tomorrow. And Fibot is also not due to arrive until tomorrow. Jess and Magnus will be provided with a room for the night. Myst can stay with Rose. Wira returns and takes Jess and Magnus to their room.

Magnus tells Jess she is beautiful. She looks in the mirror and sees that she is indeed beautiful. She had always thought she was plain. Her curse had affected the way people saw her, including how she saw herself.

They make love several times that night and it is wonderful.

Magnus says she should change her Question for the Good Magician, and have the curse removed. He would rather have a wife than an assistant. But Jess says this is something she should earn for herself, not as the gift of a rose.

In the morning the rose has wilted.

They join Rose and Myst. Rose tells them that the Good Magician had been bottling some vapour from a forget whorl and had accidentally touched the vapour. It affected his memory. He can’t remember the mission he has for them, as Service for their Answer. But he knows it involves Fibot, the participation of one night mare and one day mare, and perhaps one or two future princesses.

They go into the Good Magician’s study. Magnus asks the Question for all of them: “We wish to obtain transport aboard Fibot from village to village for our show.” The Good Magician hands them three boarding passes.

Fibot
Jess, Magnus and Myst watch Fibot arrive: it has the appearance of an ordinary small boat, but it flies through the air and has a fiery sail. A 9-year-old girl is sitting at the tiller – it is Myst’s sister Win, who has the magic talent that the wind is always at her back. This is handy to enable the boat to sail when there is no wind.

The boat lands and Win jumps out and runs to Myst and they hug. A 10-year-old girl emerges from the boat and joins them: this is Myst’s other sister Squid. She is actually a Mock Octopus (or moctopus) – an octopus-like alien who was visiting Xanth at the time Astrid and Fornax rescued the children. She is able to transform her appearance, so usually takes the form of a human girl.

Myst introduces Jess and Magnus to her sisters.

Two adults emerge from the boat: a nondescript young man and a beautiful young woman. They introduce themselves: they are Lydell (Dell) and his wife Grania (Nia), who are in charge of the boat. [And now you have some indication of what happened at the end of the book “Fire Sail”.]

Magnus introduces himself, Jess and Myst, and explains that the Good Magician has granted them the use of Fibot for their travels – for their mission and their shows. Dell replies that this is fine; they had sailed here when they received the call.

They go on board. Nia leads them down through a hatch, to the interior of the boat, which is much bigger than would seem possible from looking at the boat from outside. She takes Jess, Magnus and Myst to a luxurious suite.

After freshening up, they emerge to find that Nia has prepared a lovely meal. Jess tells Nia she seems very competent for someone so young. Nia explains that she is actually 61 years old; she had an encounter with the Fountain of Youth the previous year (at the end of “Fire Sail”) so she now has the appearance of a 21-year-old.

After the meal, Nia introduces them to the other occupants of the boat. First there is a 12-year-old boy, Santo, Myst’s brother. Myst tells Jess and Magnus that he has an almost Magician-level talent: he makes holes. (The explanation is to come later.) And he is gay.

Then another 10-year-old girl appears. This is Ula. She is not one of the siblings, but has become a close friend to them. Her talent is to be useful in unexpected ways.

Then a robot dog appears, with a bird on his shoulder. The dog is Tata – actually a dogfish – a combination of dog and fish, covered in metal and with a computer screen for a face. (Tata appeared previously in “Ghost Writer in the Sky” and “Fire Sail”.) He has a comprehensive computer memory bank, and provides essential information for their travels, which he displays on his screen.

The bird is the peeve – originally introduced in the book “Pet Peeve”, and has appeared in several books, including “Fire Sail”. (The peeve was previously described as green. Now it is black.) Its main role is to read Tata’s screen and pass the information to the rest of the crew. The peeve constantly insults people, although it has moderated its behaviour somewhat since coming on board. It usually mimics the person whose shoulder it is sitting on, so the insults seem to be coming from that person.

But now the peeve discovers that it cannot insult Jess: her curse interacts with its ability to insult, and the insult comes out as a compliment instead. And if it sits on Jess’s shoulder, all of its insults turn into compliments.

They all go back on deck. Magnus and Jess are surprised to discover they are high in the sky; the boat had taken off without them feeling it. Win asks where they are going.

Magnus tells them the clues the Good Magician had provided for their mission: they will need the participation of a night mare, a day mare, and one or two future princesses.

Tata displays the words “THE MARES”: this will be their first destination. He gives instructions to Win at the tiller, who says it will take two hours. They all go below, except for Win and Tata.

They sit in a circle, and Nia asks Magnus what he does.

Magnus describes his act. It is a freeform play, and he invites members of the audience to be in the play. He has performed it successfully in his own village, and now wants to take it to other villages.

He demonstrates by inviting members of the current group to perform. The four children – Santo, Ula, Myst and Squid – and the peeve, volunteer. Magnus permits the peeve to be included but insists that it remain silent, otherwise it would be constantly insulting people, while not sitting on Jess’s shoulder. It flies to sit on the back of a chair, which represents the branch of a tree. This leaves an audience consisting of Jess, Dell and Nia.

Magnus narrates the play, speaking the lines of the characters, and the performers perform their actions as prompted. To Jess it seems that the story is really happening – they seem to be in a forest glade, and the characters in the story are really doing what the actors are performing. Such is Magnus’s talent of verisimilitude.

After the play, Magnus asks Jess to provide the supplementary act. He gives her instructions and provides her with a prop. She will perform using the name Atrocia, and make her curse work for her.

So she starts her comedy routine. She says, “I told my boyfriend that I loved him and wanted to marry him, and he laughed his head off. And here it is.” And she pulls a manikin head out of a bag. Everyone bursts out laughing.

Afterwards, Magnus goes off for a nap. His use of his talent has really tired him out. The children go off to play, and Dell and the peeve go back on deck.

Jess and Nia go off to the cockpit to talk. This chamber has glass walls, so they can see outside, and they can see the Land of Xanth passing by below them.

Nia tells Jess that Fibot had been created by the princesses Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, who are powerful Sorceresses.

Jess tells Nia about her curse, and how it prevents her and Magnus making love, which is frustrating. She tells how Rose had given her the brown rose the previous night, which had nullified the curse for several hours, so they could make love.

They wonder about the mission – about the mares and the princesses from the future. Nia tells Jess how Princess Kadence, the daughter of Rhythm, visits from the future as a spirit, and occupies Ula’s body, with Ula’s agreement. Kadence and Ula are able to take turns using the body. (This arrangement began in “Fire Sail”.)

The peeve flies in and tells them they are arriving at their destination.

Mares
Fibot has arrived in a forested area. Jess, Tata and the peeve have left the boat and are standing in front of a clog tree. Not far away is a sandalwood tree.

Prompted by Tata, the peeve tells Jess that the clog tree belongs to Mare Imbrium (usually referred to as Imbri). She is a former night mare, who is now a dryad, or tree nymph. (Imbri has appeared in many previous stories.)

Magnus joins them and tells Jess that night mares – black female horses – carry bad dreams to people who deserve them, discouraging them from doing bad things. (Similarly, day mares carry pleasant dreams and day dreams to people.)

The peeve proceeds to tell them Imbri’s story.

In the book “Night Mare”, Imbri was temporarily King of Xanth, and killed the Horseman who was attempting to take the throne.

She got rid of the Horseman’s amulet by throwing it into the Void. But in the process, her body was lost in the Void.

However, she had been given a half-soul by Chem Centaur in “Ogre, Ogre”, and that soul returned to Chem, and so Imbri survived as a soul.

Later, in “Faun & Games” she fell in love with Forrest Faun, who lives in the nearby sandalwood tree. She became a nymph when she associated with the clog tree, and gained substance from it. Forrest and Imbri became lovers.

[There are some significant omissions from the peeve’s summary, based on previous books. Plus I will note here a few other relevant points which are not made clear in the current novel:

  • The rules are a little confusing about whether and when Imbri has been able to take solid form.  In this long-running series, I think the author has lost track of some of the earlier rules he established.
  • According to “Night Mare”, night mares have bodies but no souls. Day mares have souls but no bodies.
  • Night mares can be ridden, but only if the mare is willing. There are examples of night mares carrying people in “Ogre, Ogre”.
  • Curiously, in “Currant Events” Imbri says that regular night and day mares can’t carry people of substance. This is certainly true of day mares, but not of night mares – although it would have to be at night, and they wouldn’t like being in the presence of people who were awake.
  • Night mares can dematerialise. If they have a rider, that person dematerialises with them.
  • Imbri and two other night mares rescued Smash, Tandy and Chem from the fringes of the Void in “Ogre, Ogre”. They were paid with a half-soul by each of these people. The gourd (or dream realm) uses souls as currency.  (Note: in humans or part-humans, a half-soul eventually regenerates into a complete soul.)
  • Night mares are able to escape from the fringes of the Void, but not from the depths.
  • Imbri kept the half-soul rather than turning it in.
  • The Night Stallion decided that Imbri was unsuited to work as a carrier of bad dreams. The half-soul contributed to this. He gave her the mission in “Night Mare”, and her body was modified so that she could survive in sunlight. But she was unable to dematerialise in daylight.
  • After Imbri survived the Void, she became a day mare. She has lived for more than 200 years, so most of her life she has been a night mare. But she became a day mare at the end of “Night Mare” and continued in that role until she became a nymph at the end of “Faun & Games”. According to “Zombie Lover” and “Currant Events”, she continued to work occasionally as a day mare after she became a nymph. So for most of the Xanth series we have known her as a day mare. I find the omission of the fact  that she had been a day mare, at this point in the current novel, surprising. (It is mentioned later in the story.)
  • So I wondered about her selection as the night mare, rather than the day mare, for the current mission. Perhaps now that she is retired from dream mare work, she relates more to what she has been most of her life.
  • In “Zombie Lover”, Imbri was able to take solid form and be ridden, although she did not have her body. This was presumably because of the substance provided to her by her tree.
  • Imbri’s body was recovered from the Void in “Swell Foop”, and her body and soul were recombined. In “Currant Events” she was able to act as steed for Clio, as she was able to take solid form when away from her tree. (But is this ability any different from that in “Zombie Lover”?)  It seems that at that stage she was able to dematerialise in sunlight, which she couldn’t do in “Night Mare”. The fact that she had regained her body is ignored in the current novel, and I suspect the author had forgotten.

Given that she has regained her body, possibly she could take solid form in this story, and act as a steed. Or possibly her continued existence as a nymph, and her dependence on her tree, has made her less able to do this.

  • Imbri and Forrest were married in “Air Apparent”. Magician Trent officiated.  (The peeve’s statement that they are lovers seems to ignore their married state.)
  • Branch Faun was the original owner of the clog tree. Branch and his female companion, Lady Slipper Nymph, were lost in the Void at the beginning of “Faun & Games”. They were rescued from the Void in “Swell Foop”.
  • From Magician Trent’s comments at Imbri and Forrest’s wedding, there seems to have been an expectation that Branch would return to the clog tree, and Imbri would move into the sandalwood tree with Forrest. Obviously this did not happen. Perhaps Branch is now looking after another tree.]

Jess wonders if Imbri is a suitable candidate for night mare, now that she is retired. Tata displays a message which the peeve relays: Imbri retains contacts with her old night mare friends. She may be able to find a suitable candidate for them. The night mares’ home base is the moon, which is out of the group’s reach.

[This description of the moon as the night mares’ home base is new. Based on previous books, I would have said that the dream realm (“the gourd”) was the night mares’ home base – in particular there is a plain within the realm where the night mares can be found. What is already known is that the “seas” of the moon (such as Mare Imbrium) are named after individual night mares. And those “seas” are the private retreats of the night mares, as we found out in “Isle of View”, when Chex Centaur flew to the moon to evade the storm cloud, Fracto.]

The peeve calls Imbri and she emerges from the tree, appearing, of course, as a nymph.

They tell her that for their mission they need the participation of a night mare and a day mare. Can she help them?

Imbri tells them there is a problem. Both the night mares and the day mares are distracted currently. Somehow the Night Stallion has switched places with the Day Stallion. The night mares are carrying sweet dreams to bad people, and the day mares are carrying bad dreams to people who don’t deserve them. Imbri herself is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Night Stallion [or the Day Stallion for that matter], so is not affected.

Magnus asks if she could take the role of a night mare again. She replies that she probably could. But she can’t go far away from her tree for very long.

Magnus wonders if she could if she had a human host. Imbri thinks she could. And she misses being able to visit the rest of Xanth.

The peeve goes and fetches Win from the boat. Win is willing to be Imbri’s host, especially since she loves horses.

Imbri touches Win’s hand, dissipates into vapour and disappears. Win’s aspect changes – Imbri speaks; she is now in possession of Win’s body. Then she hands control back to Win, who tells the others she is still there. They are able to use their talents according to who is currently in control.

Jess thinks that Dell and Nia need to be here to give their approval. At that point, Dell and Nia approach, as well as the rest of the crew, except for Ula who remains on guard on the boat.

Then Imbri shows how she can transform Win’s body into the form of a horse. And she gives Myst a ride.

Imbri agrees to come with them. She goes to the nearby sandalwood tree to say goodbye to Forrest Faun, and to ask him to keep an eye on her tree. She returns. While in horse form, she communicates via dreamlets, mental images – often incorporating speech bubbles. (This is the way dream mares typically communicate.)

Magnus asks her how they can find a suitable day mare. Imbri says the day mares have the same problem as the night mares. But first, have they a suitable host? Myst volunteers.

Imbri says she knows a day mare who is more independent than most, and may be willing to join them. Her name is Mairzy Doats. And in the same way that the night mares’ home turf is the moon, the day mares’ home turf is the gulf course. This is where human emotions are most intense. Mairzy Doats’ course is on the fringe: the Abandon Hope Gulf Course. But they have to go there during the day, and since night is approaching, they will have to leave it till the next day.

(Yes, the author is substituting the word “gulf” for “golf”, which seems to me a bit lame as far as puns go. Or is it just a misspelling by the author, and the editors have assumed the author intended it as a pun?)

Imbri (who of course is in Win’s body) comes with them to the boat. She will share a bedroom with Squid and Ula.

Jess, Magnus and Myst relax in their room. Jess wonders whether their mission is to restore the Night and Day Stallions to their proper habitats and roles.

They wonder who could be bad enough and powerful enough to exchange the Stallions. They ask Tata. He displays a list on his screen: The Sea Hag, Ragna Roc, the Goddess Isis, Com Pewter on a bad day. But, he says, none are presently available.

Magnus says that Isis is not evil, merely ambitious and sexy. And Jess does not think Com Pewter would do anything like this. And Magnus points out that the Hag and Ragna have been banished and locked up.

Nia comes to their door. She had gone out to harvest some pizza pies for their dinner, and one of the local villagers had approached her. The word had spread that they have a show on board. They would like to see a show tonight. Magnus agrees to do it. Nia comments that performing shows provides a suitable cover for their mission.

So after dinner the boat flies to the village.

When the villagers gather, Magnus introduces himself as the Master of Ceremonies, and Jess as his assistant Atrocia. He asks for volunteers from the audience. The play will be on the highly original theme: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Recovers Girl. There are plenty of volunteers, including girls who just want to throw themselves at Magnus, as he had said usually happens. Jess feels a bit jealous.

While Magnus is briefing the players, Jess goes into her act. She repeats the joke with the manikin head, and then recounts an unfortunate experience with another boyfriend. (Each time she performs her act from now on, she will include additional stories of misadventures with boyfriends or other unfortunate experiences.) And the audience love it.

Then Magnus presents the play. The show is a success.

They return to the boat.

The next day they set off for the Abandon Hope Gulf Course.

Imbri tells them the Gulf Course is on one of the Sometime Islands – they appear and disappear, and are not all accessible from Xanth at the same time. (Various of these islands have appeared in previous stories, but the name “Sometime Islands” is new.)

Tata locates the island and the boat sails across the water to it and docks.

Imbri tells the boat occupants they will have to play a game of gulf. Day mares only appear when summoned by a vacant mind or a sufficiently aroused mind. Only a game will put them into an appropriate frame of mind.

So they make a foursome: Magnus and Jess in one pair, and Win and Myst in the other. They check in and get their gulf clubs and balls.

When Jess hits the ball, it goes off in the wrong direction; it is not taking her seriously. Magnus tells her to deliberately hit it in the wrong direction. She does so, swearing at it (in Xanth, swearing comes out as bleeps), and the ball goes towards the hole.  This technique continues to be successful, and she even gets a hole-in-one on one hole.

But the sixth hole is so impossible that the four players swear in unison, causing the grass to scorch. Mairzy Doats appears, telling them it is bad for the environment. Imbri (taking control of Win’s body) reveals herself, and tells Mairzy about their mission – it is unknown, but may be to get the Stallions switched back.

Mairzy is reluctant to take a human host, but when Imbri tells her about the excellent oats served on Fibot, and that the Day Stallion would probably be pleased with her, she agrees. She merges with Myst in a similar way to how Imbri had merged with Win.

Mairzy calls her assistant, a pretty little lamb called Lamzy Divey, and asks her to look after the gulf course in her absence.

They return to the boat. Mairzy (in Myst’s body) will share the children’s room, which Nia has arranged to look more like a stable.

Imbri and Mairzy go on deck, and transform into their horse forms and give the children rides.

Princesses
Jess and Magnus now have to find two princesses. They talk to Ula about the way she hosts Kadence.

Kadence visits from 9 years in the future, as a spirit. She is 10 years old, the same age as Ula. In the present time, Kadence is a baby of 1 year old. The Kadence from the future stays away from her baby self, to avoid messing up her timeline.

Magnus asks whether Kadence’s visits are random, or whether Ula summons her. Ula says that Kadence comes when she chooses, but checks every so often to see if there is a reason. (In “Fire Sail”, Dell used a ring to summon her, but that doesn’t happen in this story.)

And realising there is a reason to arrive, Kadence manifests in Ula’s body.

Magnus tells her about Jess’s curse. Kadence touches her, and Jess feels her power: Kadence is a Sorceress. And with Kadence’s talent of Alignment, she is nullifying Jess’s curse as long as she is touching her.

Magnus asks if Kadence wishes to join in their mission. Kadence is interested, although Jess realises that Kadence is attracted to Magnus.  It seems that young girls are attracted to him as well as women.  Ula says that Kadence gets crushes; she had had one the previous year on Dell. But she knows not to take her crushes seriously. Magnus points out that her attraction is an aspect of his talent. But he will remain faithful to Jess.

Kadence says she feels that the mission is important. She will join them. But she will have to return to her own time from time to time.

But they need one more princess. Kadence suggests her cousin Aria, Princess Melody’s daughter. She is the same age as Kadence.  (Aria is also a Sorceress.)

Squid volunteers to be Aria’s host. Kadence fades out momentarily to fetch Aria and then returns. Aria manifests in Squid’s body. But then Aria says it isn’t going to work. She fades out again. Squid bursts into tears.

Jess wants to comfort Squid, but can’t because of the curse. But then Kadence puts her hand on Jess’s shoulder, and Jess is able to hug Squid.

Kadence explains. To be a host, the person has to have the same age and gender. But they must also be the same species, and Squid is not human.

Win suggests that Noe could be Aria’s host. Noe is Santo’s girlfriend. She is 11, but Kadence accepts that that is close enough. (We encountered Noe in “Fire Sail”.) Although Santo is gay, he and Noe are good friends, and having a girlfriend avoids Santo getting a certain amount of teasing. But Noe lives on another planet, the World of Three Moons.  (Fibot visited it in “Fire Sail”.)

Win informs Dell and Nia of their proposal. Jess and Magnus will now see Santo’s talent at work.

Santo focuses on the sky, and a large hole appears. This is a tunnel through space to the World of Three Moons. This is truly a Magician-level talent.

Win uses her talent to blow the boat through the tunnel. They land near a small house on the edge of a forest.

The peeve flies to the house. Noe and her mother Noleta emerge. Noe and Santo run to each other and hug. Santo introduces Noe to Magnus, Jess and Myst. She had previously met all the others.

Santo tells Noe they need her to host a princess from the future, just as Ula does. Noe agrees, but says they need to check with her mother.

Dell, Nia, Magnus and Jess go to the house to meet Noleta, and explain what they require. They assure her that they will treat Noe the same as Ula.

Noleta wants to meet Aria.

Kadence speaks to Noleta first, assuring her of Aria’s good character. She tells Noleta of Aria’s talent: she can sing. Then Aria manifests in Noe’s body. Kadence introduces her to Noleta, and to Magnus and Jess, whose quest she would be involved in, and Myst, the other sibling from the future. [She does not at this point introduce Aria to the others from the boat; the author seems to be assuming, incorrectly, that Aria has already met them. But maybe Kadence had described them to her previously.]

It had started to rain while they had been talking. Aria sings a children’s ditty: “Rain, rain, go away! Come again some other day.” They can feel the power of Aria’s magic. And the rain flees.

Noleta is convinced; she agrees to Noe going with them.

They are about to leave to return to Xanth, when Nia tells them a local villager had seen them. They had heard that Noe was leaving, and want them to perform a farewell show.

Jess tells Noe she will have to participate; the show is in her honour. Noe protests that she gets stage fright. They eventually work out that Aria (who is in Noe’s body) will hum, while the play is in progress, and people will think it is Noe. (She would hum rather than singing since she doesn’t know the local tunes.) And with Aria’s magic of music, her humming would set the moods of the scenes in the play.

Aria notices Squid hovering nearby, and realises she is still disappointed in not being able to host the princess. She sits with Squid and tells her that just because Squid is an alien creature doesn’t mean she is not a worthy person. She is the kind of person Aria would like to be friends with. And here where Aria is out of her time, she needs a friend. Squid accepts this, and the two embrace.

The show goes ahead, with the usual success, especially with Aria’s music.

This time, Jess, as an additional part of her act, tells the audience she has a secret boyfriend, who doesn’t know it, and hints that it is Magnus. She says she goes to him when he is sleeping and kisses him. Later in the show, Magnus says he sometimes thinks a nymph comes and kisses him when he is sleeping. The show finishes with Magnus retiring behind a screen to rest, but with the lighting showing his silhouette. Then Jess’s silhouette creeps in and she is seen kissing him.

The group return to the boat, which takes off. Santo creates the hole in space, and they return to Xanth.

The two princesses take a room together, to catch up, and Squid joins them.

Win comes to join Myst in Magnus and Jess’s room, so the two mares can catch up.

During the night, Jess has a bad dream. She wakes up screaming. One of the mares must have passed it to her. Mairzy admits that it was her. But she hadn’t realised it was a bad dream, she is so used to carrying pleasant dreams.

But Magnus points out that Fibot protects against bad dreams; it could not have come from the Stallion. Myst says that Squid had passed it to her, and so she had passed it to Mairzy.

So they meet with Dell, Nia and the others. Nia asks Squid where she had got the dream from.

Squid is not sure. Princess Aria had come to her in the night, really upset, and had touched her. And then she had faded out, and there was only Noe left. Maybe Aria had given the dream to her. Now Aria is gone.

Ula says that Kadence is gone too. She had been upset too.

Nia thinks that Aria was taken by surprise, and had to leave suddenly, along with Kadence. She must have just dumped the dream and gone. But Mairzy says the dream was labelled to go to Jess, so it must have been left for her deliberately.

Jess describes the dream. It was a vision of the future, where the princesses had come from. Ragna Roc had escaped.

Nia tells the group about Ragna Roc.  Over a decade ago (in “Two to the Fifth”) Ragna Roc, a huge bird, had attempted to take over Xanth. He had the power of “deletion”, that is, he could turn people and things into illusions, so they could be seen, but not touched or heard. But he was defeated, and imprisoned.

Jess continues to describe her dream. Ragna had got loose and continued his conquest of Xanth. The three princesses, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, had tried to stop him before, so they were on the top of his list for revenge. He may have deleted them. And then he was going after their daughters, Kadence and Aria.

Nia says it wasn’t a dream, it was a vision of the future. Kadence and Aria had had to leave quickly because they were fleeing for their lives from Ragna Roc.

Magnus says that Aria must have just had time to leave the vision with Squid.

So now it seems their mission is not to swap the Stallions, but to stop Ragna Roc escaping before it happens.

Bad Dreams
Squid remembers one more thing. Just before she disappeared, Aria said “Great Uncle Dolph”.

The peeve is dismissive. Prince Dolph is essentially a nonentity. He is a shape changer. Maybe his nieces like him because he changes into a dragon and gives them rides.

But Magnus says that Aria is a serious girl, and would not have mentioned him for no reason. It must be a hint.

Tata provides information on his screen, which the peeve relays.

Prince Dolph is the son of the former King and Queen, Dor and Irene. King Ivy is his older sister. (The ruler of Xanth is called King, whether male or female, for constitutional reasons.)

When Dolph was 9, he set off on a quest to find the missing Good Magician Humfrey, accompanied by Marrow Bones, the walking skeleton. (This is as described in “Heaven Cent”.) He had various adventures, and became engaged to two girls, Nada Naga and Electra.

He eventually married Electra (in “Isle of View”), letting Nada go. Their children are the twins Dawn and Eve.

Then Tata provides some additional information:

Prince Dolph was present at the wedding of the winged centaurs Cheiron and Chex (in “Heaven Cent”), when all the winged monsters swore to protect their coming foal Che Centaur and his ward Sim Chick, son of the Simurgh, not yet hatched, from harm.  (The Simurgh is a huge bird, who is the wisest creature in the universe.)

Dolph counted as a winged monster because of his dragon form. He was the most important participant in that oath. His action would change the history of Xanth in due course.

[There are a number of inconsistencies between this account and the description of the event in “Heaven Cent”. According to “Heaven Cent”:

  • There is no mention of Sim Chick during the wedding ceremony. (Che Centaur later becomes Sim’s tutor at the end of “Roc and a Hard Place”.)
  • Dolph was in dragonfly form, not dragon form. Although admittedly, it is possible the people of Xanth consider a dragonfly to be a small flying dragon, given the punnish nature of the land.
  • Although the Simurgh had told Dolph that he, most of all, should swear the oath, it is not clear why this is. My guess is that in his position as a prince, he would be in a good position to ensure Che’s protection.
  • It was Che who would change the history of Xanth, not Dolph.  And he has already done so, in two ways, and possibly a third. The author seems to have taken what was originally stated about Che in “Heaven Cent”, and applied it to Dolph in the current novel. There is no indication in “Heaven Cent” that Dolph would do something that would change the history of Xanth.]

But Prince Dolph hasn’t changed the history of Xanth in any significant way, and doesn’t seem to be doing anything about this. The future crisis of Ragna Roc’s escape and attack would be the sort of thing which requires a change in history. The occupants of Fibot resolve to head to the prince’s residence and inform him of the crisis, and remind him of his role.

At that point, Kadence and Aria return to their hosts.

Aria tells them what had happened.

Aria and Kadence had suddenly remembered a ceremony they had to attend, in their own time, to commemorate 20 years since the defeat and confinement of Ragna Roc. Kadence had previously travelled back to that time, and was present at the time when Ragna Roc made his attack. [Actually the reason for Kadence’s presence is more complicated, as described in “Two to the Fifth”, or see my summary of those events in my review of “Fire Sail”.]

The three princesses, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, Cyrus Cyborg and Kadence had managed to defeat Ragna Roc and confine him in an eggshell of undeleted material. (Ragna Roc could delete people and things, and undelete them, but once undeleted, they could not be deleted again.) Kadence was the one responsible for constructing the eggshell.

At the 20th anniversary ceremony, Kadence is to be honoured for her part in Ragna Roc’s defeat. Aria is to sing the story.

Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, Kadence and Aria are all gathered on stage, when Ragna Roc appears. He had escaped his confinement.

Since Ragna only speaks in squawks, his words are translated by Em Pathy, Ragna’s minion, translator and chief of staff. She announces that the princesses would be deleted, starting with Kadence. Everyone else could save themselves by swearing allegiance to Ragna Roc.

Rhythm interposes herself in front of Kadence, and gets deleted.

Melody urges Kadence and Aria to leave. Melody also gets deleted.

King Ivy comes on stage to protest, and she too gets deleted.

Kadence and Aria hurry away. Harmony comes with them, saying that she must protect herself, as she is now the Queen by default. (Harmony had long been designated as the next ruler of Xanth – refer “Luck of the Draw”. And by taking the title of Queen, she is effectively ending the convention that female rulers, as well as male rulers, must have the title of King.)

Ragna Roc and Em Pathy give chase.

Ragna Roc deletes the first floor of the castle ahead of them. The second floor crashes down. Kadence, Aria and Harmony have to dodge through the rubble.

Aria’s talent enables her to throw her voice, which she does to confuse Ragna and Em about their whereabouts.

They exit the castle and make their way to the orchard. Aria tells the others they must make their way to the plaque for Zombie Pie. (Zombies had been given the job of guarding the two ends of the escape tunnel.)  That is the location of their escape. They split up and dodge through the trees.

Aria decides she must warn the people in the past; maybe they can stop this disaster before it happens. She focuses on returning to her host – and discovers she has returned to Squid instead of Noe! She knows this will not last long, and dumps a vision of the horror on Squid, labelling it to go to Jess.

Then she adds a comment about Great Uncle Dolph. He is supposed to save Xanth. This must be where he does it. But she is wrenched back to her own time, not being sure how much of the message got through.

Aria arrives at the plaque. The others are here.

She lifts the plaque, which is a trapdoor. They follow a staircase down to a passageway, which leads to a tunnel.

Kadence and Aria explain to Harmony that the tunnel leads to another world. It was constructed by the children of Fibot, 9 years ago.

[How do Kadence and Aria know about the tunnel? Although it was constructed in the past chronologically, they have not yet been involved in the building of it, which occurs later in the story (and later in their personal timelines), so they should not yet know about it.  And the tunnel has been kept secret, so it is not general knowledge.

Later in the story, Kadence says they did not know about it until they came of age to use it. Only when Ragna Roc struck did they remember it. However, I don’t think this explains it, and the book never provides an explanation.

One possible answer is that after Kadence and Aria are involved in building the tunnel, they travel in time, in spirit form, to their earlier selves, and pass on their memories to them.]

They come to the end of the tunnel, and exit to the World of Three Moons. Aria tells Harmony the royals here will help her set up the Xanth government in exile.

They follow the path through the jungle and come to Noe’s house.

Aria introduces the three of them to Noleta. Noleta, of course, has not met Kadence and Aria in person before, only when they were hosted by Ula and Noe. Aria proves her identity by singing a fragment of an aria.

Noleta tells them that Noe is now 20 and involved in the dating scene. But she has a difficulty; she still likes Santo.

Aria and Kadence attempt to return to the past, but it doesn’t work. Noleta suggests that this would be a paradox; they can’t go back with the intention of changing their own personal timelines. Harmony suggests that once the people of the past make their own decision to contact Prince Dolph, then they will be able to return and help them.

They keep trying, and suddenly they are able to return.

Nia says they still have to work out how to build the tunnel to the World of Three Moons.

Magnus says they need to sort out the problem of the switching of the Stallions. They don’t know whether it is part of the mission, or irrelevant to it. They should resolve this before going to Prince Dolph.

The mares, Imbri and Mairzy, admit that they haven’t asked the Stallions about the switch, and they don’t feel they can. Mares just follow their Stallion’s instructions. Kadence and Jess volunteer to ride the mares to go to talk to one of the Stallions.

So Win (hosting Imbri) and Myst (hosting Mairzy) transform into their horse forms. Ula (hosting Kadence) mounts Mairzy, and Jess mounts Imbri. They pass out through the boat’s hull and set off, flying through the air.

Jess doesn’t want to go to another gulf course, so they decide to go to the realm of the night. They fly to Mount Neverest.

On the top there is a giant gourd, which is the portal to the realm of the night. They enter.

The path they must follow is one with nasty puns. They pass through several scenes involving bad puns, and finally come to a horse, with a bright scintillating coat. This is the Day Stallion.

Kadence asks him what he is doing in the Night Stallion’s realm.

The Stallion turns to her and asks her why she, a princess from the future, is here.  Kadence tells him about the disaster in the future.

The Day Stallion tells them the Stallions had switched voluntarily. They get bored, and have done this for a change.

Kadence rebukes the Stallion. How can they focus on their important mission when the Stallions are messing up people’s minds? (Jess admires Kadence’s spirit; most likely she will be the next queen after Harmony.)

The Stallion admits she has a point. He disappears and is replaced by another horse, whose coat is scintillating darkly. This is the Night Stallion. He asks Kadence if she is satisfied.

He tells Imbri he is glad to see her again. And addressing Jess as the Protagonist, he flips a token to her. She can invoke it if she needs him.

They return to the boat.

Great Uncle Dolph
Jess points out that they will have to build the tunnel, to enable Aria, Kadence and Queen Harmony to escape Ragna Roc in the future. Aria says that Noe needs to tell her mother about it, and gain her cooperation and silence. And Santo must build the tunnel, of course. Santo agrees.

The boat sails to Castle Roogna, where Prince Dolph lives. King Ivy welcomes them. Jess is startled to see her, then remembers that it was in the future that Ivy was deleted.

They decide not to reveal their mission to Ivy; knowing about her future deletion could cause her to change her actions, leading to paradox. And the princesses conceal their presence.

Nia tells Ivy about Jess and Magnus’s travelling show. Ivy says they must do a show in the castle.

Magnus says they first have some private business with Prince Dolph. Ivy says Dolph and his wife Electra have gone flying, with Dolph in his dragon form. Most likely Dolph is doing skywriting with his dragon smoke.

So they set off in the boat again.  [Magnus and Jess depart on their adventures, and don’t perform the promised show in Castle Roogna. They still haven’t by the end of the book – that is, in the Castle Roogna of the present time, as opposed to 9 years in the future.]

They eventually see a flying dragon with a woman on his back. He is skywriting the words: “Need three more players for gulf quartet.”

They realise they will have to play gulf with him in order to talk to him. They sail close, and Magnus tells Dolph they have players for gulf.

They follow Dolph down to a gulf course on the ground. Kadence and Aria say they will need to reveal themselves, given Dolph’s importance to the mission.

Dolph takes human form. Jess and the two princesses leave the boat and walk over to him. They introduce themselves. Dolph remembers Kadence from the conflict with Ragna Roc in “Two to the Fifth”. Kadence explains how she and Aria are from the future, and are present in the host bodies of Ula and Noe. Dolph and Electra promise to keep their presence secret.

Jess tells Dolph and Electra about her curse. They are only able to take her seriously because Kadence is touching her. But this won’t be possible during the gulf game. And she needs to describe the situation to Dolph.

Electra’s talent is electricity. She says that some curses have an electrical component. She can electrify Jess’s gulf club, which may nullify the curse.

So they check in to the Fantastic Scenes Gulf Course, and receive their clubs and balls. The proprietor is a sombre troll. The princesses withdraw into their hosts; it will be Ula and Noe who are playing.

Electra takes Jess’s club and electrifies it. It gives Jess a shock, but after the initial pulse, Jess finds she can hold it comfortably. (Electra herself is not playing; she is just watching from the sidelines.)

Dolph tells Jess that gulf matches are scored in the usual way, with the winner being the player with the lowest score. But there is also a daily special prize, whose rules vary from day to day. He would like to win the prize for a friend.

They begin playing. Dolph is the best player. The two girls are intermediate in skill, and Jess is the least skilled. The ball is taking her seriously because of her electrified club, but she hasn’t had much practice in this game.

Jess tells Dolph about the disaster in the future. Dolph points out that it is impossible for a person to change their own timeline; what they should hope to do is shift to an alternative timeline where Ragna Roc is still confined.

Dolph wonders how he is to be involved in this effort. Jess reminds him of when he attended the wedding of Cheiron and Chex Centaur.

Dolph thinks it must relate to Che Centaur. Che had become the tutor of Sim Bird, the son of the Simurgh. It is Sim’s duty to learn everything there is to know about the universe. Maybe Sim can advise Dolph.

Dolph believes he knows how to contact Che, and he should know where Sim is.

They continue with the game. Each link has its own theme: the Faun & Nymph Retreat, a griffin’s den, a grove of tangle trees, etc. But Jess notices some of the creatures are in difficulty, and there are other things that need fixing: a faun whose companion nymph has run off, a griffin with a thorn in its claw, and a tangle tree wilting because of lack of water, etc. She spends time fixing these things up. And because this is slowing the group down, Dolph and the two girls help with these problems, so the game won’t take too long.

When they finish the game, the sombre troll appears to make the announcements. Jess wants to complain about the problems she had encountered, but the troll proceeds to announce the results of the game. The winner of the round is Dolph. And the winner of the special prize is Jess!

The troll announces that the prize is Frankie, the prospective bride of Frank Monster (also called Frank Stein). [Frank and Frankie of course are allusions to Frankenstein’s Monster and the Bride of Frankenstein.] [The character Frank Stein in this story should not be confused with Frank (aka Frankenstein Monster) in the stories “Board Stiff” and “Five Portraits”, who of course is also an allusion to Frankenstein’s Monster.]

Dolph says he had hoped to win the prize, so he could take Frankie to Frank. But he says Jess can do this just as easily.

The troll explains that the special prize was for alertness, expedience, and compassion. Jess had won it for helping the creatures in difficulty and fixing the other problems. A curtain drops, and behind it are the various creatures from the links. It had been a kind of set-up; the creatures hadn’t really been suffering.

Frankie Stein
The sombre troll takes them to the room where Frankie is staying. But whereas Jess is expecting to see a woman made of a patchwork of body parts, they see a beautiful woman.

Electra recognises her as the Goddess Isis.

The Goddess Isis appeared in “Isis Orb” and “Ghost Writer in the Sky”. She is the Goddess of Fertility – in other words Sex. She is the ancient Egyptian goddess from 8,000 years ago, and had come to live in Xanth. Demons Xanth and Earth had permitted her to migrate from Mundania to Xanth, but had confined her to living in comic strips – strips of land with various obnoxious puns. But Isis had overcome this restriction by having her spirit hosted in other women’s bodies, with those women’s agreement. Thus she can effectively travel around Xanth.

She is currently hosted in Frankie’s body, and using her power of illusion, she covers up Frankie’s true appearance. To illustrate, she temporarily drops the illusion to reveal Frankie’s true appearance, which is indeed a patchwork of body parts.

Jess tells Frankie that she will take her to Frank Stein, her ideal partner.

They return to the boat. Electra kisses Dolph goodbye and departs. Dolph and Frankie are added to the people on board. The boat sets off.

Dolph explains that he needs to find Frank, because Frank knows how to find Che. Frank had done a favour for Che.  So, to allow Frank to come to him for a return favour, Che had placed a circle with a spot of Frank’s wrist – effectively a compass – which points to Che’s location.

Frank is now working in the dream realm. Dolph had made an agreement with the Night Stallion, that if he delivered Frankie to Frank, the Stallion would make a path to lead him to Frank.

Frankie had originally worked in the realm of the night, but had wanted to change to work with pleasant dreams, but she had got lost and ended up at the gulf course.

The boat sails to Mount Neverest, where the portal to the dream realm is located. Everyone on board wants to go, so the boat itself sails through the portal.

The boat sails into the haunted house, which is a common entry point for the dream realm. Isis points out to Jess that Fibot has magic that allows it enter any channel, without distorting its interior; effectively it adjusts its size to what is necessary.

The boat leaves the house and enters the graveyard. It continues, visiting various scary scenes. Jess realises the Night Stallion is giving them a tour.

They come at last to an ancient castle, where a young woman is trying to hide from a man made of a patchwork of body parts. This is actually a bad dream being filmed, to be delivered to an appropriate recipient.

The filming finishes and Jess approaches the patchwork man, who is indeed Frank Stein, and introduces him to Frankie. (Isis has departed, so Frankie has her usual grotesque appearance.) For Frank and Frankie it is love at first sight.

To celebrate the engagement, Magnus and Jess put on a show. All sorts of strange and scary creatures gather as the audience. Frank and Frankie volunteer to be the lovers in Magnus’s play.

Afterwards, Frank and Frankie join them as they return to the boat. The happy couple are given the bridal suite. The boat leaves the dream realm.

In due course, Frank and Frankie emerge from their suite, and Frank holds out his wrist with the compass. Following its direction, Fibot arrives in the region of the Sometime Islands.

Their destination island is not currently visible, so while they are waiting, Imbri and Mairzy transform into their horse forms and give the others rides – on the deck and across the sea.

Eventually their island appears, and Fibot sails across to it. It is an island made of chocolate, and they are greeted by its guardian, a chocolate moose.

The moose speaks in grunts, which Tata translates and displays on his screen, and the peeve reads to the others. The moose welcomes them to Chocolate Island, the home of the Chocolate Alchemist, who makes all kinds of chocolates. Che Centaur is here, looking for chocolate truffles.

They see Che heading towards them, and tell him about their mission. They hope he knows how to help them.

Che says he doesn’t know how, but he can take them to someone who surely does: Sim Bird, whom Che tutored for years, but has now advanced beyond his tutor. It is Sim’s job to acquire all the knowledge in the universe, so his mother, the Simurgh, can retire.

Stench Planet
Frank and Frankie depart, to spend their honeymoon on Chocolate Island. Che joins the group on board Fibot.

Che tells them that Sim is on Stench Planet, one of the Worlds of Ida, doing research. Stench Planet is the source of all kinds of bad smells. It is where they grow stink horns, among other things.

(For a description of the Worlds of Ida – previously referred to as the Moons of Ida – see my webpage: Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Overview and Short Descriptions.)

Fibot leaves Chocolate Island and returns to Xanth Proper.

Che talks to Santo about his talent. He says it is borderline Magician level, as Santo can create holes of all sizes, from a pinhole to a tunnel to other planets.

Noe jumps to Santo’s defence: why does Che say that Santo’s talent is borderline Magician level?

Che asks Nia, as the matriarch of the group, whether what he is about to say would violate the Adult Conspiracy. Nia replies that the children are all quite mature, some of them having had difficult and dangerous backgrounds, and they should be able to handle what Che says.

Che says that he regards Santo’s talent as Magician level. But those senior people who classify talents have certain biases, and tend to consider there is something wrong with a person who prefers romance with their own gender, and therefore that such a person shouldn’t be classified as Magician level. But Che hopes that someday Santo’s talent would be recognised as Magician level.

Che asks Santo if he can create a tunnel to a planet he has never seen. Santo says he can if he is given the bearings. Che gives him the coordinates. And he tells Win, at the helm, to orient the craft in a particular direction, angled into the sky. Win applies her talent, blowing the boat in that direction. Santo creates a tunnel in the sky, and Win blows the boat through.

They arrive in a thick bank of smog. But Fibot has a shield which keeps clean air inside and polluted air out.

The tunnel closes behind them. Santo is worn out and goes below to rest. Noe goes with him, to protect him from intrusion. (In the past, his sisters have taken turns to do this.) Squid also goes with them, as company for Aria, whom Noe hosts.

Che directs Win to continue across the planet to where Sim can be found.

And then they see him: Sim is a lovely roc-size bird, but his legs are tied up and he is lying imprisoned in a cage!

It will be difficult to release him:

  • The cage is made of fine ironwood mesh that would take hours to clip through.
  • The knot tying Sim’s legs is a Gourdian knot: it can only be untied by a resident of the gourd, and with proper instruction.

But they have Imbri, the night mare, a creature of the gourd. Win can lend her her hands to untie the knot. Tata can provide the instruction and the peeve can translate. And Ula and Myst can help.

Magnus has experience of cages. He notices that this one is not anchored to the ground. It has four main supports. If one person lifts the cage at each of the supports, the children and animals can scoot under to reach the knot.

Nia says they need to leave someone on board Fibot, and she appoints Jess. She gives Jess her key, which will give Jess control of the boat if necessary.

The others leave the boat, gasping at the polluted air. At Che’s call, the four adult humans (Magnus, Dell, Nia and Dolph) lift the cage, and the children and animals (Win, Ula, Myst, Tata and the peeve) scoot under.

Win puts her hand to the knot, and Imbri manifests in her body. But then Imbri exclaims: “This is a sleep-gas bomb!” What was apparently the tied bird dissolves into vapour. All the living folk fall to the ground asleep, inside the cage. And Tata, who is unaffected by the sleep gas, is also trapped inside the cage.

The whole thing sinks into a slippery channel and slides into the surrounding smog. And is gone.

Jess is left alone in the boat. What is she to do? But then she realises she is not alone: the three children are belowdeck.

She goes down to Santo’s room. Santo is asleep, with Noe holding his hand. Squid is sitting beside Noe, talking to Aria (hosted in Noe’s body).

She tells them there is a problem, and asks if they can wake Santo. Noe does so. Jess tells them what had happened.

They wonder who could have set the trap.  Aria suggests Ragna Roc.  But he is still locked in his egg at this time.

Who could have known they were coming to Planet Stench?  And arrived here before them?  Was it someone who could read minds?

Jess remembers that the Sea Hag had been mentioned.

Aria knows about the Sea Hag.  The Hag doesn’t read minds, but she can take over someone’s body and get their information that way.  Originally the host had to die before she moved to a new host, but she got better at it, and she could borrow a host for a few days and then move on.

[The Sea Hag previously appeared in the stories “Golem in the Gears”, “Question Quest” and “The Dastard”.  The last we encountered her, the Sea Hag was trapped in a hole, blocked by a monster, in “The Dastard”. Given that we encounter the Sea Hag in this story, obviously she must have got free, and had further experiences that we don’t know about.]

Jess thinks the Sea Hag must have made a deal with Ragna Roc to free him, in exchange for being made Queen of Xanth.

How can they find the rest of their crew?  Squid says she can swim below the surface to follow the crew’s smells.  (Apparently a lot of the surrounding environment is liquid.)  She jumps overboard, transforming into her natural form, and dives into the muck.

Aria is able to track her, and she says Squid is able to track the odours in the water. And Aria realises she can also sense where Kadence is, because the two princesses are attuned. Kadence is currently unconscious, or at least her host Ula is.

But now Aria senses that Squid has lost the trail; there are just too many odours. Soon Squid returns. She showers under the deck shower to get rid of the smell.

Santo realises that since Jess has Nia’s key, she should be able to sense where Dell is, as the two keys – Nia’s and Dell’s – connect. Jess holds the key up and realises she can sense Dell’s presence; he is unconscious.

Santo says the Sea Hag must have escaped from the Brain Coral’s pool. [The Sea Hag was confined in the Brain Coral’s pool at the end of “Golem in the Gears”, but had escaped by the time of “The Dastard”. Is Santo thinking of that time, or was the Sea Hag confined in the pool again at a later time?]

But why would she be coming after them, rather than going directly to free Ragna Roc? They discuss this and conclude that she needs Fibot, to enter the peephole of the egg in which Ragna is confined, using Fibot’s magic ability to enter any size passage. She had already tried to get everyone off the boat. No doubt she will try further tricks and traps to take possession of Fibot. They need to be on their guard.

Jess takes the helm. She is unfamiliar with tacking, but Santo tells her to address verbal commands to the firesail. Jess points in the direction she senses the other key, and tells the firesail to adjust itself so they sail in that direction. They move in the required direction, and Jess can sense that Dell is closer.

Then they see Kadence walking along the ground, heading away from the boat towards a crevice. Aria calls out to her but she doesn’t seem to hear. But Santo thinks she is an illusion. And Aria confirms this: she can sense where Kadence is, and she is not in that location.

But then Magnus appears, chases after Kadence and rescues her before she falls into the crevice. Magnus and Kadence hug and kiss.

Jess is dismayed. But Santo points out that both Magnus and Kadence are illusions, probably designed to get Jess or the others to leave the boat. The illusions fade.

Then Jess sees Magnus again, rescuing Nia, who is tangled up in vines. Magnus and Nia kiss and hug. But of course these are illusions too.

Meanwhile, the boat has reached where Jess had sensed Dell. Santo tells Jess to give the key to Squid so she can steer. Jess can make a histrionic scene to distract the Sea Hag, while Noe and Santo rescue the others.

The boat reaches the cage and enters.

Jess gives her key to Squid and then starts yelling at the illusional Magnus and Nia.

Before long Santo announces they have rescued the rest of the crew. The gravity of this world is low, which made the people light enough to carry. Jess sees the sleeping bodies of their friends lying on the deck (plus of course Tata, who hadn’t been asleep).

Jess gets her key back from Squid, and steers the boat out of the cage and into the sky. She brings the boat to a stop.

Sea Hag
The smell from the sleeping members of the crew, and also their rescuers, is terrible. Squid suggests that the sleep bomb may also have been a stink bomb. They all need to be cleaned.

But Squid is concerned about something. She whispers to Santo. Santo whispers to Noe and then comes to whisper to Jess. He says that the Sea Hag could be among the sleepers. Jess thinks she is likely to have possessed Nia, the one adult female amongst the sleepers.

They proceed to strip the sleepers and then hose them down (plus Tata of course). Jess binds Nia’s wrists and ankles.

As the sleepers wake up, the others tell them what had happened. And as Nia wakes up, Jess meets her gaze, and knows immediately that she is looking into the baleful eyes of the Sea Hag. The woman struggles, but she is securely bound. Jess tells everyone that the Sea Hag has possessed Nia’s body.

The Sea Hag constantly uses insulting and foul language, and makes crude sexual suggestions.

Dell demands that the Sea Hag leaves his wife’s body. But the Hag is defiant. Santo threatens the Sea Hag with torture if she doesn’t leave.

But Dolph has a better idea: they will take her back to the Brain Coral’s Pool in Xanth: the Brain Coral will be able to separate the Sea Hag’s spirit from Nia.

Dolph assigns Jess the job of keeping the Sea Hag (in Nia’s body) confined and fed, and of seeing to her natural functions.

Jess notices that Kadence and Aria are attempting to keep their presence secret from the Hag.

Now those who had rescued and cleaned up the others – Jess, Santo, Noe and Squid – strip and are hosed down by Dolph in their turn. Eventually everyone is clean and clothed again.

Jess gives Nia’s key to Santo. He will return it to Nia when the Sea Hag is gone.

Now they must set off to find Sim Bird – the real one this time.

And they find him. (Dolph points out that he is unlikely to be an illusion, because the Sea Hag must have possessed an illusionist before, but now she is possessing Nia.)

Sim speaks in squawks, but Che can understand him and tells the others what he has said.

Sim is in the midst of his research. He has to complete it in an orderly fashion before he can talk to them. He tells them where they can wait – somewhere without all these nasty smells.

Tata has picked up the directions. The peeve points out the direction they should take.

They come to an island flower garden. It is surrounded by filter trees which remove magic-related odours. There are also brown roses present. Dolph points out to Jess that they are not Rose of Roogna’s cultivated variety, but are related and they suppress the magic of bad smells. The Fibot crew all leave the boat.

Jess has words with the Sea Hag. She believes the Sea Hag has been in contact with Ragna Roc, who has agreed to make the Sea Hag Queen of Xanth in exchange for freeing him from the eggshell.

But Jess believes that Ragna Roc will delete the Sea Hag as soon as he is freed. He has his own minion, Em Pathy, whom he trusts, but he does not trust the Sea Hag. And deletion of the Sea Hag and her host will make it difficult for the Sea Hag to move on to another host. She might be better going her own way rather than meeting up with Ragna Roc. (The Hag says this is something she must think about.) But in any case, they can’t take the risk; they will take the Hag to the Brain Coral’s Pool.

Sim arrives. Dolph asks how he is supposed to save Xanth. Sim replies (via Che) that he just has to get rid of the Sea Hag. With Dolph involved, there are two chances in three that the group will succeed; without him there is only one chance in three. Sim can’t give any more detail; what he knows relates to past events; he sees the present as chaos, leading to an uncertain future.

Jess takes the Sea Hag back to the boat. Jess has nothing more to say to the Hag, so the Hag tells her story to Jess. She had been a member of the first human settlement of Xanth, 3,000 years ago. She had been abused as a child. She had discovered that she could take possession of another woman’s body when her own wore out. And so she had continued over the centuries. In later years she had learnt that her old body didn’t have to die before she possessed another body. She tells how (in “Golem in the Gears”) she had selected Rapunzel to be her next host, but Grundy Golem had come and stolen Rapunzel away from her.

The Hag continues on in a monotone, and Jess falls asleep. At one point she feels a faint touching, which then turns away, not taking her seriously.  (She realises later that this was the Hag attempting to possess her, but her curse had saved her.)

Then Nia’s voice wakes her; Nia says the Sea Hag has left her, to possess someone else on the boat.

Leaving Nia tied, just in case, Jess races into Dell’s room. She tells Dell to check whether Nia is really free. Ula had been sitting with Dell; Jess looks into her eyes, but concludes the Hag has not possessed her.

She goes to Santo’s room, where he is sleeping. Noe is sitting with him. Jess checks Noe and discovers that the Hag has possessed her. Jess struggles with her. Santo wakes up wondering what is happening. Jess tells him the Hag has possessed Noe. Together they tie Noe’s body up.

Dolph says they must take the Sea Hag off the boat. Together, Jess, Myst and Dolph take the Sea Hag (in Noe’s body) off the boat, and the boat takes off. But this means they are stranded on Planet Stench.

Aria
Dolph touches Noe’s hand, and Princess Aria speaks. She is still hosted in Noe’s body. She is able to leave, but believes it is better to stay and fight the Sea Hag. The Hag can’t completely dominate Noe’s body while Aria is resisting her.

Both Dolph and Aria have Magician-level talents. While they are touching, Aria has control of Noe’s body. But when Dolph stops touching her, the Hag has dominance again.

And in any case, they don’t want the Hag to leave. They want to keep her confined until they can take her to the Brain Coral’s Pool. But she won’t be able to leave Noe’s body for a day or so, when she has managed to take over Noe’s body completely.

Dolph says they should now start travelling between the worlds. Fibot has gone, but Dolph is able to orient on his sister Ida. (There is a counterpart of Princess Ida on each of the Worlds of Ida.)

Dolph transforms into a roc, and Jess and Myst haul Noe’s body onto his back. Dolph takes off. Aria is able to talk while in contact with Dolph, but the Hag can too, as Dolph’s feathers do not provide complete contact.

The Hag tells them that after she was last captured, she was exiled to Planet Stench. There is not much tourist industry on Stench, so it was assumed she would not escape. Ironically, if Fibot had not shown up on Stench, the Hag would not have escaped.

Dolph arrives at Princess Ida’s castle. They get off, and Dolph transforms back into a man.

A woman approaches. This is Stench Ida, the counterpart of Dolph’s sister Ida on this planet. Orbiting her head is a tiny staff with a swollen end: this is a distaff, representing the next planet upworld. A distaff is a staff around whose end women wind flax or yarn to facilitate spinning. It is a symbol of women’s work, and thus of women.

Dolph introduces his companions to Ida, and explains their situation.

Ida makes some suggestions:

  • Dolph can transform into a flea, and maintain continuous contact with Noe’s body by hiding in her hair. This will avoid the appearance of an uncle constantly touching his niece.
  • This will enable Aria to have continuous control of Noe’s body. But this means she must behave in a princessly manner, not outrightly deceiving others, but not necessarily telling the whole truth.

Ida also points out that there is a supplementary Brain Coral with a Pool two worlds up, on Planet Coral. They can take the Hag there. Travelling upworld is easier than downworld.

In the past it was necessary for people to travel between Worlds of Ida in soul form, by releasing their souls from their bodies and leaving their bodies behind. But now, with the changed understanding of the Worlds of Ida since the end of “Air Apparent”, there are other ways. Dolph is able to take them between worlds.

Dolph transforms into the roc again, and the others get onto his back. He flies around Ida, and then Jess realises he is circling her moon. And the world of Distaff is growing and becoming a full-sized world. They land on the planet. Dolph transforms back and points in the direction of Distaff Ida.

He unties Noe’s body, then transforms into a flea in her hair. Aria is now in control, and Dolph is able to mentally give her guidance.

They set off and come to a town. They can only see women; there seem to be no men. (They later learn that most of the men are away working in the mines.  There are also men who work as guards.)

They come to a road block. A woman demands to see their kingdom bands. (There are multiple kingdoms on the planet Distaff.) Jess notices that all the women have green bands on their left wrists. Aria points out they are from offworld. She is Princess Aria of Xanth. The woman touches her and recognises her power as a Sorceress.

The woman speaks into a magic mirror to another woman called Thirza, explaining they have a Royal from offworld. The group is guided to a cell.

Soon Thirza shows up. She is obviously a person of authority. She tells them that women govern the World of Distaff, but they are short of competent rulers. Any Royal is slated to serve, because people prefer royalty. So Aria is required to remain and rule this local kingdom of Greena. [The kingdom’s name appears as “Greenia” in a few places, but I assume these are typos, rather than an alternative spelling or Aria’s mispronunciation. (How unprincessly would that be!)]

Aria points out that she is hosted in this current body; she could leave any time. But Thirza says that in that case her servants (meaning Jess and Myst) would suffer. Thirza departs.

Aria discusses this with the others. Thirza comes across as a competent ruler. She proposes to appoint Thirza as regent, and rule in absentia.

Jess asks the guard to send for Thirza. When she arrives, Aria says she will accept the Queenship of Greena, and appoint Thirza to act as regent in Aria’s absence. Thirza points out that Aria will still remain under guard, as a captive queen. Aria asks her to set up a formal gathering with the people; Aria will address them, appoint Thirza as regent, and then depart. And she asks for a copy of the Greena national anthem.

Thirza leaves, and soon the guard brings her a copy of the national anthem. Aria studies it.

An hour later, the gathering is organised in the town square. Aria has been dressed in queenly clothing by the local girls, and she mounts the platform.

Thirza presents Aria as the new queen. Aria sings the national anthem. Everyone is mesmerised by the power of the song, as Aria is using her Sorceress talent. Aria accepts the position of queen and places a green band on her wrist. She tells the people that she must depart the kingdom, and appoints Thirza as her regent.

Aria, Jess and Myst return to the cell. Aria asks Jess to organise their escape. Jess asks Myst to turn to vapour and check the area for guards. They need a place where Dolph can transform into a roc and take off.

After scouting the area, Myst returns and says all the guards are relaxing and drinking beer. They think Aria’s leaving is just talk, that maybe she’ll go to a country estate. There is a courtyard nearby which they are not watching.

But then Myst says that Mairzy has told her that a guard has just come out by chance and is standing in their way. (Mairzy of course is hosted by Myst. Jess had forgotten about her, and probably we had too, since she hasn’t been mentioned for a while. Myst says that Mairzy had been trying to contact Imbri, but hadn’t been able to do it across worlds.) Mairzy will give the guard a daydream to distract him.

So they leave the cell and make their way to the courtyard. Dolph transforms into a roc, and the others get onto his back. He flies to the castle of Ida of Distaff. They tell Ida their story.

Noe
Dolph turns into a roc again. They circle Ida, orienting on her moon, which is the World of Coral. It is mostly sea with a scattering of islands. They will have to go to Ida of Coral to find out where the Brain Coral is located.

So they fly to Ida’s castle and tell her the story. Ida gives them directions. But no sooner have they taken off when Aria says that the Sea Hag has gone! She is no longer in possession of Noe’s body. She had taken her opportunity to depart as soon as she could, so as not to be delivered to the Brain Coral. And Aria can’t sense her presence.

They return to Ida’s castle. Ida says the Sea Hag can’t be detected when she is not in a living host. She can go indefinitely between hosts, so there is no point waiting till she takes another host. And as a spirit, she can’t move between worlds without a host.

Aria tells them that Noe is in a bad way. She hasn’t been able to recover since the Sea Hag departed, the way Nia did, as Nia is a grandmother and is quite tough. Noe is hurting; she needs to cry in the arms of someone who understands.

Ida seems to be the only one who can comfort her. Aria lets her go, and Noe runs to Ida’s arms. The others leave them together and go outside.

Shortly Ida and Noe come to the door. Ida says it is now time to talk. Myst rushes to hug Noe, saying she hadn’t realised what it was like.

Noe says that when the Sea Hag took her, it was like drowning. She felt as if she was being pushed down into the mud. She had clung to one thing: her love for Santo.

Now that the Sea Hag is gone, she feels like ashes that have been burned up. She doesn’t know whether she wants to live. She feels dirty, in a way that can never be cleansed. Even her love for Santo is futile, because he is not interested in her in that way. It may be kinder to him if she no longer exists.

Ida says that this is how it is for the survivors of the Sea Hag. She seems resigned to the fact that Noe will take her own life.

Jess realises it is up to her. She concentrates, to overcome her curse, and to get Noe to listen to her seriously. She tells Noe that what she wants with Santo is the love of a sibling. The five children rescued from the future are not related, but they have chosen to relate to each other as siblings because of their shared history. Noe does not have the same history, but she has been sharing in their current mission to save Xanth.

Myst says she would welcome Noe as a sibling, and Santo would too.

Jess says that Noe’s feelings of uncleanliness are not her own, but are the remnant of the filth left by the Sea Hag. Noe herself is a decent person. Nia had the same experience, and she survived it. Noe should consult with her when they get back to Fibot.

And Noe should think of the consequences of taking her own life. Aria would be without a host. And Santo might blame himself.

Also, now that the Sea Hag has left her, Noe is immune to another possession by the Hag. This may enable her to defeat the Hag when they catch up with her.

Noe accepts what Jess has said. She no longer intends to take her own life. Myst hugs her again, and Noe bursts into tears of understanding and relief.

Dolph says that all they can do now is move on, and try to rejoin the crew of Fibot. They will still try to recapture the Sea Hag in the future.

Ida says that the World of Three Moons is four worlds up in the sequence of the Worlds of Ida. No doubt Fibot will be arriving there sometime. (Although Fibot has already visited the World of Three Moons in this story, and also in “Fire Sail”, this is the first indication we have had that the World of Three Moons is one of the Worlds of Ida.)

So they continue their world travelling, visiting the World of Bird, the World of Ant, the Blue Moon, and finally come to the World of Three Moons.

They arrive at night. Noe has mixed emotions, and doesn’t want to see her parents quite yet. Dolph transforms into a house fly – that is, a giant fly in the form of a house. Jess, Noe and Myst enter, have a meal and spend the night in a shared bedroom.

In the morning they leave the house, and Dolph returns to his human form. Dolph wonders if there is room for him to land near Noe’s house in the form of a roc. Noe says no; it is mostly swamp near her home.

Myst says there are other creatures capable of carrying things: the pro-duck for example. (Pro-ducks, products: Jess groans at the awful pun. And I do too.)

So Dolph transforms to a huge duck and settles in the swamp. They all get on board. Dolph swims to Noe’s house.

Noe runs to her house and meets her mother as she comes out of the door. Noleta has heard of the Sea Hag’s possession of her daughter, but Noe reassures her that she is now free.

It turns out that Fibot regularly makes trips to the World of Three Moons, on behalf of Queen Jenny. (Jenny Elf has appeared in many previous stories. She married Prince Jeremy Werewolf in “Zombie Lover”. Jeremy later became King, so Jenny is now Queen of the Werewolves. In “Fire Sail”, Jenny’s son Jerry became engaged to Princess Froma of the World of Three Moons. They are shortly to be married.)

So Fibot had made a recent trip to this world. The boat is currently docked at the palace. But they had come to visit Noe’s parents and told them what had happened to Noe. They are going to check each day to see whether there is news of Noe and the others.

Noe and the others go into the house with Noleta and tell her about their experiences.

[The text is confusing at this point. It reads as if Dell and Nia are currently present and are talking to them – but without any introduction stating or explaining their presence, or why they are away from Fibot. I think it is more logical to interpret this as Noleta reporting what they had said when they visited.]

Dell had told Noleta that Queen Jenny had been cataloguing the local worlds. That is how they knew that Stench Planet was relatively close to the World of Three Moons in the sequence of the Worlds of Ida, so they hoped that Noe and the others would arrive here soon, assuming she was rid of the Sea Hag.

Around noon Fibot arrives. Noe hears Santo’s voice calling and runs out to meet him. She tells him she is now free of the Sea Hag.

(Che is no longer on board. Evidently he left the boat when it returned to Xanth.)

Santo tells Noe how he had missed her. He offers to become her boyfriend for real. Noe says he should continue as her pretend boyfriend, but otherwise they should relate as siblings. Jess notices Myst discussing this with Win and Squid, and sees that they agree with this too.

Ula comes up and Kadence manifests. Aria does too. The two princesses embrace.

Now Magnus comes and tells Jess how he had missed her. He needs her as Atrocia for the shows, but also for herself, personally. (However there is still the problem of the curse preventing them from relating romantically.)

Magnus tells Jess that Princess Froma wants them to perform a show for the royal wedding.

They all return to the boat, with Noe saying a temporary goodbye to her parents.

Tunnel
The next morning they discuss their strategy. They have two tasks: putting on a show for the royal wedding (and after that in other locations), and building the tunnel. The first they will do publicly, which will be a cover for the second, which must remain secret. They will have to divide into two teams.

Magnus and Jess are required to present the show, and Aria should be included to enhance the performance with her humming.  The others who are not required for the Tunnel Project will be part of this team.

For the Tunnel Project, Santo will be required to create the tunnel, and Noe will be required to be by his side while he recovers. Kadence is needed to align the lining of the tunnel.

Kadence says they need the poop of the giant stone-borer worm to coat the tunnel. Dolph says he can transform into the worm and provide the necessary substance. But he will need someone to slap it onto the walls behind him – and the stuff smells terrible. Squid volunteers to do this as she is not too worried about smells.

Kadence says they will also need iridium, to make the coating of the walls permanent. Tata tells them (via the peeve) that there is iridium on the planet, but it is thinly spread and difficult to get at.

Aria says there is another problem. She is needed to sing at the shows at the same time that her host Noe supports Santo.

Dolph turns to Jess. She had proved her role of protagonist in persuading Noe not to kill herself, and it seems that they now expect her to be a general problem solver.

Jess says they should ask Tata if there is a more convenient source of iridium. It turns out there is. Then she says that Kadence and Aria should swap hosts: Kadence to go to Noe, and Aria to go to Ula. They do the swap.

Dolph offers to take a small group to the source of the iridium, which is on the other side of the planet. He transforms into the roc, and takes Jess, Tata, the peeve, and Ula (hosting Aria). Tata squawks, giving Dolph directions in roc language. They arrive at a house on a farm. They go to the door.

A handsome man with silvery hair answers – although he does not look very old. They tell him they have come in search of iridium.

The man’s name is Ira. His talent is to conjure iridium. But the exercise of his talent is tiring, and has a negative effect on his personality. He says if they want more than a thimbleful, they must tell him why they want it.

It is up to Jess to explain. She points out that her curse prevents people from taking her seriously.

But Ira has no problem taking her seriously, and in fact is attracted to her. He invites them in.

He explains that the exercise of his talent makes him attracted to what is magically repulsive. For this reason he cannot relate to most women. But he is attracted to Jess. With her permission, he kisses and hugs her, and Jess can tell that it is genuine. He is in fact immune to her curse.

The group take a vote and decide to take Ira into their confidence. They explain about their mission. Ira agrees to help them.

Jess wonders how they can repay him. Ira says all he wants is for her to be with him. Jess explains that she is in love with another. Ira says that in that case he will do it for the good of Xanth.

Ira says he has commitments over the next two days, but then he will be free to come with them.

So the group depart and fly back to the boat.

Jess still feels an obligation to repay Ira. She tells Magnus how Ira would like to be with her. Magnus says that Ira can give her what Magnus can’t. If she can find happiness with Ira, Magnus would be satisfied with just her involvement in the show as Atrocia.

Next Jess discusses it with Santo. He suggests that she try being with Ira for one night, and if it works out, try for longer periods. In this way it is like his relationship with Noe – since a romantic relationship isn’t possible, they have another way, a sibling relationship.

The next day, Dolph, as the roc, takes Jess, Noe (hosting Kadence) and Myst (hosting Mairzy) to visit Ira. Kadence gives Ira details of the tunnel making. When they are ready to leave, Jess tells Ira she will be staying the night. The others depart.

Jess and Ira have a meal together, and then to prepare to make love. But Ira notices that Jess’s face is covered in tears; she really doesn’t want to do this, because she is in love with Magnus. They get dressed and spend the evening talking, and then spend the night sharing a bed, but without making love.

The next day, when Dolph arrives as the roc, Ira joins Jess and returns with her to Fibot. Jess introduces him to the crew members he hasn’t met, and shows him around the boat.

Then she turns him over to the Tunnel Team: Santo, Dolph, Noe, Kadence, Tata, the peeve and Squid. This team is set up in a cabin separate from Fibot, because the boat will be travelling to take the Show Team to perform their shows. Besides the performance for the royal wedding, they are also scheduled to perform their shows in various places across the planet.

So the boat sails to the palace to put on the show for the royal wedding. The team meet Queen Jenny, Prince Jerry and Princess Froma. The audience includes royalty from the other kingdoms of the planet. Aria gives the team instructions on how to relate to royalty.

Magnus invites volunteers from the audience, and all the volunteers are royal, including Jerry and Froma.

Jess performs her act as Atrocia, including details of her travelling the Worlds of Ida. Then Magnus presents the play, which is on the theme: prince meets princess, prince loses princess, prince regains princess.

Afterwards they check back with the Tunnel Team. The tunnel is in place, Dolph is in his form as the stone-borer worm, Squid is scraping up the droppings and smearing them on the walls, Ira is conjuring a stream of iridium, which Tata is vaporising in a small attachment, and the peeve is blowing the iridium against the walls by clinging to the floor and flapping its wings. Kadence’s magic is making it all integrate.

When they take a break, Ira has a talk with Magnus. Ira has come up with a crazy idea which might help Magnus properly relate romantically to Jess.  But Magnus won’t tell Jess what it is yet.

And Santo has worked out a way to repay Ira. In the same way as Tata had located Ira, he has located a young woman capable of conjuring platinum. Since platinum merges well with iridium, Ira and this woman may be compatible.

Days pass as the tunnel is constructed. Meanwhile the Show Team is performing their show across the planet.

Then Jess remembers about the zombies. Zombies will be maintaining and guarding the tunnel at its two ends. They should receive some recognition. Magnus says they should be recognised as legitimate citizens of the planet. (The zombies on Xanth already have recognition; it is the ones on the World of Three Moons that Jess and Magnus are concerned about.)  They decide to take Jenny into their confidence and ask her to speak with Princess Froma’s mother the queen.

Eventually the tunnel is finished and the crew are relaxing. Jess enlists Win to fly the boat, taking Ira and herself to the location Tata indicated for the woman who conjures platinum. They come to a house. Ira goes to the door. A beautiful woman, with platinum-coloured hair emerges. It is love at first sight; the two immediately embrace. Ira remains while the others fly back to camp.

The next day, with all the crew back on board again, Fibot flies back to where Ira is staying. Jess goes to the door, and the woman answers. Her name is Platina, and she can relate seriously to Jess in the same way as Ira. Platina tells Jess how grateful she is that Jess introduced her to Ira.

Ira is asleep on the couch, so Jess and Platina sit together and talk. Jess swears her to secrecy and tells her about their mission.

Platina says there is one thing that bothers her. Their goal of eliminating the Sea Hag benefits the next track of alternative Xanth history, but they still need to fix the current track. In the future the mothers of the two princesses, and various other people have been deleted. They need to get Ragna Roc to undelete them all, and then send him into permanent exile along with his minions.

They discuss how this could be done. Ira wakes up and joins the discussion.

They return to Fibot, and Jess introduces Platina to the others. Then they transport the couple to Ira’s house and leave them there to make their own arrangements.

They sail to Noe’s home and say goodbye to Noleta. Then the boat returns to Xanth, transporting the royal couple (and presumably Queen Jenny as well) and dropping them off at the Werewolf Kingdom.

Strategy
Jess has been thinking of the Sea Hag on odd occasions since she disappeared, and now Jess realises why. The Hag’s spirit had been tagging along with Jess as she moved from world to world. This way she was able to get a free ride back to Xanth. Jess had only sensed her when she was outside Fibot, as the boat is shielded against the Hag’s intrusion. But it means the Hag had been able to listen in on their plans for building the tunnel, and could potentially tell Ragna Roc. Jess must do something to defeat the Hag.

She consults with Tata and the peeve, to try to understand the Hag’s nature, and how she possesses people.

Then she talks to Nia. Nia says she had also felt the Hag’s presence. They discuss how they might set up a trap, but it would be a nasty process.

Then Jess talks to Santo, and he agrees with her plan.

Jess asks Nia to assemble the whole group, so she can talk to them. In the meantime she talks to Kadence. She gets Kadence to promise that after their mission is over, Kadence will go back in time to when her former self defeated Ragna Roc, and assure her earlier self she is doing the right thing. Kadence says that now she thinks about it, she did receive some encouragement from her older self at that time.

Jess says the purpose of this is to get the paradox effect to work in their favour. Ragna Roc can’t change his own timeline. And the earlier Kadence is part of that timeline. By interacting with her earlier self, that means the older Kadence is also immune to Ragna Roc’s attacks. And since Kadence has interacted with the whole crew of Fibot, this will make them all immune to Ragna Roc.

Now Jess addresses the whole group. She tells them the plan she had worked out with Platina. They must go forward in time to confront Ragna Roc and force him to undelete the people he had deleted. Then he must be exiled permanently.

Jess says they will go to the Timeline of Xanth. This is a tower, an obelisk with four sides. Tata had been part of the group that used it previously (in “Ghost Writer in the Sky”), and knows its location. Touching it enables a person to travel in time.

However in order to protect itself, the Timeline requires that people approaching it must choose the right path from several paths. In their case they should propose several different paths and choose one of them.

So the group propose several ways to get to the Timeline. Myst goes and stands next to Tata, touching him, so Tata can communicate the Timeline’s location and the routes to it to Mairzy. Mairzy creates an animated dreamlet, which they all can see, showing the proposed paths.

Myst makes an additional suggestion. They should follow a route which takes them to Astrid Basilisk’s home, so they can take her with them to the future. When they confront Ragna Roc, Dolph can transform into a dragon and threaten him with fire. But Ragna is big, and that’s a lot of fire. Astrid can kill him with a single glance. (Astrid is a basilisk turned human, but even as a human she retains her deadly glance.) They don’t actually want to kill Ragna, but the threat would be there.

Jess notices that this path passes the Void, which is useful for her purpose. They all agree to follow this path.

So Fibot sets off and comes near the Void.  It will not be possible for Fibot to take them the whole way; they will have to get out and walk.  They anchor at an enchanted rest stop, and leave Tata and the peeve in charge as they disembark.

And here is where Jess sets the trap for the Sea Hag. I won’t give you the details, but the end result is that the Sea Hag’s spirit is cast into the Void, from which (with a few exceptions) there is no return. There are some unpleasant moments for the group, but in the end they all survive and are okay.

They continue on and come to a house with a flower garden. There is a woman tending the flowers. This is Astrid; she wears dark glasses to avoid accidentally killing people with her deadly glance. The four siblings rush to embrace her. Then the siblings introduce her to the rest of the group.

A 14-year-old boy emerges from the house; this is Firenze, the fifth sibling, who had been adopted by Astrid and her husband Art. The siblings rush to embrace him too. Myst introduces him to the two additional siblings: Noe and Ula.

The group tells Astrid about their mission, and why they want her to join them. Astrid agrees to come with them.

She tells Firenze he had better stay at home. He says this is because he is a hothead. Astrid corrects him: it is so he can look after the flowers in her absence.

Firenze demonstrates his talent, which explains his reference to being a hothead. He glowers, his complexion intensifies, becoming downright fiery. His head seems to be about to burst into flames. (In “Five Portraits”, he would even shoot fireworks out of his head; this ought to have been mentioned in this book also.)

Since it is getting dark, they would stay the night at Astrid’s home.

Showdown
After dinner, when Jess is talking to Nia and Astrid, she admits that she is afraid that her theory about paradox immunity might be wrong; if it is, they are headed for destruction.

The next day the group walks to the Timeline of Xanth.

Jess summarises their plans. They will need to get close to Ragna Roc, and so they are taking the role of travelling players.

To use the Timeline, Jess will touch the point on the obelisk that corresponds to the time they want to go to. The others are linked to her in a chain, to ensure they all arrive at the same point in time. They want to arrive at a time a day after Kadence and Aria fled.

Jess holds out her hand, and feels the impulse from Kadence and Aria, through the chain, indicating where she should touch the Timeline. She touches it, and they are in the future.

Dolph transforms into a roc, and carries them all to Castle Roogna, where they will confront Ragna Roc.

Comments on time travel elements in “Jest Right”
Different authors of time travel stories use different rules. That’s fine as long as they are consistent within the story.

Some stories permit travellers to the past to change history, others do not. Making changes in history always has the possibility of paradox. Some authors deliberately include paradoxical elements in their stories.

Some stories permit time travellers to take action in the past – which then turn out to have always been part of history. An example in the Xanth series is when the robot (or golem) Robota (in “Xone of Contention”) travels back to the period of “The Source of Magic”, when it had already been mentioned in the earlier book that a female golem had been present.

One way authors avoid paradox is that a change in the past results in a split in the timeline. The original timeline continues on without the change, but a new timeline comes into existence because of the change.

(A variation of this idea is that the timeline splits every time someone makes a significant decision. In fact the concept of alternative realities used in some of the Xanth stories is essentially the same as this. See, for example, “Ghost Writer in the Sky”, where Reality #2 differs from Reality #1 in that Taplin took the long sleep instead of Electra. Or “Five Portraits”, where the future destruction of Xanth is avoided when the five children are adopted – including critically, the adoption of Santo by Fornax and Nemesis.)

Piers Anthony is doing something much the same as a timeline split in the current story when he talks about timelines following different tracks. Even so, the story includes the concept of paradoxes: potential paradoxes which prevent changes to the timeline, apparent paradoxes which permit changes to the timeline, and paradoxical events which start to take place until the paradox effect kicks in.  There is also mention of “closely nestled alternate realities” – whatever that means.  Some of the characters discuss the theory, although I don’t think it comes across very clearly. And I don’t think the theory always matches the practice.

This story involves time travel in the form of Kadence and Aria travelling to the past in spirit form and potentially changing history. Then later the whole group travels forward to Kadence and Aria’s time, via the Timeline obelisk.

(The author makes some assumptions, which I have assumed as well, but they are not entirely watertight:

1. It was the Sea Hag, using Fibot, who released Ragna Roc. But there is no direct evidence in the story that this is so.
2. Once the Sea Hag is cast into the Void, she will not be able to escape. But as we have seen in other stories, there are ways characters have escaped from the Void.)

From what the characters say, the author seems to be working with a model where a person can’t change their own timeline – except possibly in minor ways, but a significant change in history results in a new timeline being split off (or as described in this book, the timeline takes a different track).

However, the way story actually develops is not logical.

At first I thought there were two timelines involved:

(1) In the first timeline, the Sea Hag takes control of Fibot and uses it, 9 years in the future, to free Ragna Roc. Either the Sea Hag remains at large, or is immediately deleted by Ragna Roc. This is the timeline in which Ragna Roc deletes Rhythm, Melody and Ivy.

It is also the timeline in which Kadence and Aria travel to the past, prior to the Sea Hag taking control of Fibot. (This means Kadence and Aria’s presence in the past has become part of the Sea Hag’s personal timeline.)

The reason the Sea Hag doesn’t release Ragna Roc until 9 years in the future is presumably because up to that point Kadence and Aria were aware that Ragna Roc was still confined. Otherwise this would create a paradox.

(2) The second timeline splits off from the first when the crew of Fibot thwart the Sea Hag’s plan. The split may have occurred any time after the crew’s encounter with the Sea Hag, but ultimately, the developing timeline becomes incompatible with the first timeline when the Sea Hag is cast into the Void, so is unable to free Ragna Roc. So maybe the split occurs then. In this timeline, Ragna Roc remains confined to the egg.

There is a problem with this. When the group travels to the future via the Timeline obelisk (which would have to occur in the second timeline), you would expect them to travel to the future of their own timeline, that is, the future where Ragna Roc remains confined. Instead they arrive in the first timeline, in which Ragna Roc was released.  Is the Timeline obelisk a reliable way of travelling to your own future?

However, on rereading the story, it seems that this two-timeline model is not what the author has in mind. Instead he has a single hybrid timeline, where initially the Sea Hag frees Ragna Roc, but then the timeline is modified, and the Sea Hag is cast into the Void. However the freeing of Ragna Roc remains in effect. For all the talk of paradox, there remains a significant one: how was Ragna Roc released, if the Sea Hag was eliminated 9 years before?

I think the author is trying to explain it with the “closely nestled alternate realities”, which sounds like multiple timelines merged together into one. But I’m not sure what he’s getting at, and I don’t think this solves the problem.

Unless there is a significant change to the timeline in later books, we should expect the Xanth series to eventually catch up to the point in time where the crew of Fibot encounter Ragna Roc, 9 years in the future.

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