Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Vale of the Vole


Vale of the Vole (1987)
Esk is the 16-year-old son of Smash and Tandy (Smash and Tandy’s story is in “Ogre, Ogre”); he is a quarter ogre, half human, and a quarter nymph.  So he is essentially human, but if he gets angry or desperate, he gains ogre strength briefly.   Esk needs to get away from his parents occasionally, so has located a hideout in a beer-barrel tree.  But then this space is invaded by a demoness called Metria.  [The mischievous and seductive Demoness Metria is a recurring character in the series.  Her distinctive characteristic is that she often has trouble with words, which often betrays her when she is trying to hide her identity.]  Each tries to get the other to leave, and finally Metria threatens Esk’s parents.  Esk decides he must go to consult Good Magician Humfrey.

He sets off on the enchanted path.  He meets Chex, a female winged centaur, who is the daughter of Chem Centaur and Xap hippogryph: they had had a liaison during the adventure of “Dragon on a Pedestal”.  Although Chex has wings, she can’t fly, because her body is too heavy; she wants to ask the Magician how she can fly.  Then they meet Volney Vole; the vole community in the Vale of the Vole has a problem: demons who live in the valley have straightened the Kiss-Mee River, making the valley dry and barren.

The three querents (people with Questions) arrive at the Magician’s Castle, and find it deserted. They travel toward Castle Roogna to report to the King. As they arrive near the Castle, they meet a group consisting of Chet Centaur (Chex’s uncle), Princess Ivy (now 10 or 11 years old) and the dragon Stanley Steamer.  Esk’s group tells the others what they have found. Chet tells them the King and Queen are currently away from the Castle, so they all decide instead to go to the Gap Chasm; Chex’s mother, Chem Centaur, is there, mapping the Chasm.  Since her talent is projecting maps, maybe she has a map which shows lost Magicians.

They find Chem and the dragon Stacey Steamer together at the Chasm. (In other books, Stacey is called Stella. Stacey has taken on the duties of Gap Dragon during Stanley’s absence.)  But Chem doesn’t have a map showing where the lost Magician is.  She returns with them to Castle Roogna.

Chex’s grandparents, Cherie and Chester, have been acting as caretakers of the Castle in the King and Queen’s absence. Chex has been dreading meeting them, as it is obvious from her wings that she is a crossbreed. They have not previously known about her existence. (Centaurs generally do not accept crossbreeds of their species.) And now, when they meet her, Chester is accepting of her, but Cherie is not.

The King and Queen return the next day, and the travellers report that Magician Humfrey’s Castle is deserted. Volney also reports the problem of the Vale of the Vole.  But the King can’t address Volney’s problem; he considers Humfrey’s absence a priority.

Esk, Chex and Volney all resolve to work together to get rid of the demons from the Vale of the Vole.  They will all go to the beings of their races to ask for help.  Ivy will also help to the extent she is permitted.

Chex heads off towards Centaur Isle, with Ivy on her back.  But they reach an area with a terrible smell: a sphinx had died.  So they divert to Castle Zombie.  Millie (the Zombie Master’s wife) provides them with a guide, a zombie centaur called Horace, who will take them via another route.  Horace leads them through the peephole of a huge hypnogourd (a zombie gourd), so they travel physically via the dream realm (often referred to as “the gourd”), and arrive on the coast opposite Centaur Isle.  But the centaur who takes people across on his raft won’t take Chex because she is crossbreed; the centaurs of Centaur Isle would not accept her.

Esk travels to Gateway Castle, under Lake Ogre-Chobee, where the curse fiends live.  (The curse fiends are a community of humans who all have the same talent of casting magical curses.)  They accept him because his paternal grandmother had been a curse fiend.  But they require him to be the audience for plays they are putting on, and to provide feedback.  At the end of his stay, they provide him with an old woman called Latia, to investigate the situation at the Vale of the Vole.

Latia tells Esk her cursing talent is defective; one curse in three turns out to be a blessing.  The next curse is due to be a blessing, so Esk asks her to curse him.  Nothing seems to happen initially, but then, when Latia isn’t looking, he falls down a sinkhole, and his eye is caught by the peephole of a hypnogourd: this puts him into a trance, and his spirit travels into the gourd realm.

The Kingdom of the Voles consists of all kinds of digging creatures, ranging from the large diggles to the small wiggles, and various kinds of squiggles in between.  And then there are the civilised voles, such as Volney.  Volney travels underground to talk to the diggles.  But the diggles do not want to antagonise the demons, so will not help.  He then goes to the squiggles, but they can’t help.

Chex and Volney meet back at Castle Roogna.  Esk is not there, but Latia arrives, and tells them that Esk is lost.

Esk is in the gourd realm.  After trying a few paths, which lead to dangerous outcomes, he tries another which is less defined.  He finds a walking skeleton called Marrow Bones, who tells him this is the Path of the Lost.  Marrow had got lost after running away from the graveyard, when he was scared by Smash (in “Ogre, Ogre”). But now he wants to come with Esk, so he will no longer be lost.  Further on they find Bria Brassie, a brass girl from the City of Brass, who had also got lost. She also comes with Esk.  Then Esk returns to the normal world of Xanth, because Chex, Volney and Latia had found him, and removed the hypnogourd.  Marrow and Bria have returned with him.

Chex and Marrow travel to meet Chex’s father, Xap Hippogryph, to ask if she can meet with the winged monsters.  Xap wants her to meet a centaur called Cheiron, but Chex, having received rejections from the centaurs, doesn’t want to meet another.  Xap tells her that the winged monsters are meeting on a mountain, so she can make her case, but she must get there on her own.

Chex laboriously makes her way up the mountain, with Marrow helping her.  She finally makes it to the plateau at the top, where the winged monsters are gathered.  She presents the case for getting rid of the demons, so the Vale of the Vole can be restored.  The opposing case is presented by Cheiron, who indicates the danger to the monsters from the demons.  Chex’s argument carries the day.  Then she discovers that Cheiron is a winged centaur; she is sorry she had not met him earlier when her father asked her to.  Cheiron says he will welcome her when she learns to fly.

Esk, Bria and Latia return to Castle Roogna to report to Ivy. Ivy gives them a pathfinder spell, which creates a magical path to their next destination, Ogre-Fen-Ogre Fen, the home of the ogres.  The path takes them to various strange places, but gets them to their destination a lot quicker than travelling directly.  They manage to convince the ogres to come to the Vale of the Vole.

Volney now travels underground to find a wiggle.  Wiggle swarms, which had previously occurred in “A Spell for Chameleon” and “Dragon on a Pedestal”, consist of the small wiggle larvae.  But an adult wiggle looks much like a smaller version of a vole.  Volney locates a wiggle princess called Wilda, who will soon produce offspring.  He asks her to come and make her nest in the Vale of the Vole.  The resulting swarm will devastate the area and upset the demons, making them leave.  But to prevent injury to nearby creatures, a containment spell will be required.  Wilda tells him of one that had been taken into the gourd and lost.

Esk, Chex, Volney and Marrow go to the zombie gourd, where they can enter the gourd physically. They invoke the pathfinder spell, to find the containment spell, and follow the path into the gourd.  They have various strange experiences, finally travelling through the gourd equivalents of the five Elemental Realms: Air, Earth, Fire, Water and finally the Void.  It turns out that the gourd equivalent of the Void, itself, is the containment spell. They pick it up and take it with them.

They all gather at the Vale of the Vole.  Esk assigns roles to his companions: liaisons to the voles, the winged monsters, the ogres and the demons.  Crunch Ogre (Esk’s grandfather) and Xap Hippogryph arrive as the representatives of the ogres and the winged monsters respectively.  And Demoness Metria turns up as the liaison for the demons.

The winged monsters and the ogres arrive, and start attacking the demons.

Meanwhile a romance is developing between Esk and Bria.  But creatures from the gourd cannot remain in normal Xanth – they eventually fade away – unless someone gives them half a soul.  Esk has to decide whether he is willing to give half of his.

But ultimately, all the fighting doesn’t force the demons to vacate the Vale.  The ogres and the winged monsters depart. The demons cause the river to flood the valley.  Esk and his companions make their way to higher ground, but Marrow and Bria are captured by the demons.

Then Wilda Wiggle arrives to make her nest.  Esk must set up the containment field, but this means he will have to remain in the path of the wiggle swarm.  Surprisingly, Metria offers to protect him by wrapping herself around him like a sheet; as a demoness, she can make herself impervious to the wiggle larvae.

And the wiggle swarm begins.