Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Well-Tempered Clavicle


Well-Tempered Clavicle (2011)
[As the author explains in his Author’s Note, the book’s title is a pun on “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, a piece of music by J S Bach. A clavier is the keyboard of a musical instrument, such as a piano.]

Picka Bone and his sister Joy’nt are walking skeletons, twins, aged 24, the children of Marrow Bones and Grace’l Ossein. (Marrow, Grace’l, Picka and Joy’nt have all appeared in previous stories.)  They meet the three Baldwin pets (Woofer the dog, Midrange the cat, and Tweeter the bird, who previously appeared in “Yon Ill Wind”), who have now moved permanently to Xanth.  They all decide to go on an adventure together. Picka wants to find out his magic talent, and thinks Princess Eve could help, as her magic talent is to know anything about any non-living thing. But Eve had married Demon Pluto (at the end of “Jumper Cable”), and lives in a palace in Hades. So they go to Castle Roogna to ask Eve’s twin sister, Princess Dawn, how to get there.  Picka and Joy’nt had been childhood friends of Dawn and Eve, who are now 20.

Dawn has a pass to Hades, and takes them all there. When Eve meets them, she tells Picka that he can detach his clavicles, and use them to play tunes on his ribs.

But Dawn feels jealous of her sister’s married status, and on their return from Hades, she and her companions go to ask Good Magician Humfrey where she can find a suitable husband, who must be a prince, or have a similar special status.

Humfrey gives Dawn a mission, to locate and bring back Pundora’s Box, which previously contained all the nasty puns. The box is located in Caprice Castle, which continually changes its position.  It is thought that the Castle is looking for a worthy occupant. The two skeletons are given spells which can turn them into living humans for an hour a day.  Humfrey gives them a list of people who might help them find the Castle.

The first person on the list is Attila the Pun.  Woofer has the magic talent of being able to track anyone, so they set off following him.  They find bicycles at a rest stop along the way, which speeds up their travel.  Woofer leads them to a forested area where Attila is destroying puns with a sword.  But Attila is not interested in taking them to Caprice Castle.  Unfortunately, when Dawn points out to Attila that he is a pun himself, he drives the sword into himself, and disappears in a puff of smoke.

The next person on the list is Granola.  Woofer leads them to the Gap Chasm.  Dawn knows a magic path down into the Chasm, and rides her bicycle down the side, with the others following her.

They find Granola (Granny Ola), who is an invisible giantess.  Granola has a curse, such that anything she is looking for is in the second last place she looks, which means she can’t find things.  But Dawn thinks as a group they can get around this curse.

Night is approaching, so they decide to stay there overnight.  Picka plays music on his ribs with his clavicles, and the others play instruments or sing.  They all agree that Picka is a good musician, and improves each time he plays.  They will continue to play at intervals during their adventure.

The next day they travel on, with Granola carrying the others in her invisible handbag. They visit several places.  Granola has a sense of possible places they should look for the Castle.  One of these is in the Region of Water.  Picka drops down into the deep water and finds another walking skeleton, Skully Knucklehead, originally from the gourd (the dream realm), but who had got stranded on a shipwreck. He joins their group and becomes a close companion of Joy’nt.

After Granola gives up looking for the day, they return to the second last place she had looked.  There had previously been a rocky outcrop, but it is now gone.  They realise that it had been Caprice Castle, disguised.  They meet a woman called Doris, who can determine the truth of any statement.  When Dawn says their music is not relevant to their mission, Doris says that, on the contrary, their music is important to the mission.  Maybe if they play, the Castle will appear.  And so they play, with Picka adding improvised tunes.  A storm is approaching, so when indeed the Castle materialises, they all rush in to escape the rain.

They find bedrooms prepared for them.  Dawn and Picka enter one.  Dawn tells Picka that she has fallen in love with him because of his beautiful music.  She persuades him to invoke the spell which turns him into a living man, and they make love.  But when Picka reverts to a skeleton, he is no longer sexually attracted to her, and doesn’t think there is any future in a relationship between them.

The next day they search the Castle, but do not find Pundora’s Box.  However they do find a book telling the history of the Castle.

Demon Pundit had lost a Demon wager, and was required to collect all the puns of the universe and confine them. He built Caprice Castle to contain them, and appointed a man called Piper (a magnificent musician who played the pipes) to do the collecting.  Piper used his music to stun, weaken and summon puns, so he could capture them.

But one of his puns, a girl called Pundora, betrayed Piper, and allowed all the puns to escape. Pundit punished Piper by turning him into a goo monster, who can only be turned back if he marries a princess.  Piper has gas vents in his body which function as organ pipes, so he can now use his music to capture animals for food.

The history book now shows current events.  Attila had been Pundora’s boyfriend.  When Pundora discovers that Dawn had been responsible for Attila’s death, she vows to take revenge on her.  She goes to Piper and says she will help him capture and marry Dawn, which will break his curse.  But since Picka will oppose him, Piper will have to destroy Picka.  Pundora has Attila’s sword, which is actually a woman called Steel, who can transform herself into weapons.  But she can also transform herself into a magic mirror, which can tell her Dawn’s location.

Picka and the others now perform their music again.  But the Castle disappears, leaving them behind.  Maybe it had judged Picka’s music not to be good enough.

The next night they stay at a private house.  The residents give Dawn and Picka a room together.  This time Dawn invokes Picka’s spell, and becomes a walking skeleton.  Picka is attracted to her beautiful bones.  Their time together is bliss.  Afterwards he admits that he loves her, whatever form she is in.  But he does not believe himself worthy to marry a princess.  But Dawn says he could be, if he becomes the finest musician in Xanth.

The group travels on and comes to Mount Rushmost.  There is a winged girl there called Mim Barbarian, who insists they leave, since they are not winged monsters.  But they trick her into believing they are.

Then they discover Dawn’s great-grandfather, Bink, on the mountain.  His wife, Chameleon is also there, but she has had a magical mishap, and turned into two women, the two extremes of herself: Wynne, who is pretty and stupid, and Fanchon, who is ugly and smart.  Picka suggests a way that will turn her back, and this works.

Piper arrives on the mountain, with Pundora riding him.  Piper can use his music to summon or stun people, throw fire balls, and disintegrate matter.  He stuns the living creatures in the party, and summons them to him.  But Picka, learning from him, opposes Piper with his own music.  They all fight against Piper.  Mim summons a dragon, and Piper gives up and leaves.

Bink tells Picka of an expert musician called GoDemon in the town of Rap Port.  They should go there so that Picka can learn from him and improve his music, so he can oppose Piper.

So Granola carries Dawn and her group to Rap Port, where Picka is taught by GoDemon (a human man, but with some demon ancestry).  But Piper attacks again.  GoDemon and the townspeople help the group fight against Piper, and Piper, overwhelmed, departs.

They realise that Piper has been so successful because Pundora has been guiding him. GoDemon tells them he has heard of a man called Battila, who may be Attila’s brother.  Maybe when Pundora meets another man like Attila, she will leave Piper.

So they travel on and discover several siblings of Attila: Battila, Fattila, Gattila, etc.  When Piper attacks again, Gattila the Gun lures Pundora away from Piper.  Picka fights against Piper while the others of the group help the siblings escape. Finally Picka throws sand in Piper’s vents, which spoils Piper’s music.

Granola carries the group to an island off the west coast, where Picka can practice his music and improve.  Then Granola carries the three pets back to the mainland, so they can investigate what Piper is doing.  Piper attacks several communities, which requires the rest of the group to come and repair the damage.  It is clear that Piper can continue attacks of this kind.

Dawn decides it is time for a showdown.  There will be a musical contest between Piper and Picka, including both combat and musical excellence.  Dawn will marry the winner, and they will live in Caprice Castle, taking on the job of collecting puns.