You can't say I give up easily. I once liked Piers Anthony, and I keep trying to like him again. So far, with no success. I read this book interleaved with a Michael Swanwick collection, hoping they might balance each other out. In a sense, they did - they were both weak.
Xanth is the series that introduced me to Piers Anthony, when I was in my early teens. It was novel, fun, and full of puns. I later turned away from Anthony, and the most recent story I read by him was truly awful. Still, when I saw this 40th (!) book in the Xanth series, I thought a trip down memory lane might be worthwhile. Apparently, though, they sculpted all the cobblestones, and it's not a smooth path anymore.
I stuck with the original Xanth series until book 13, Isle of View. At that point, I just couldn't stomach the sexism, and there were even too many puns for it to be fun. It turned out to be a good time to quit - just a little while later, book 15 emerged - The Color of Her Panties. I haven't read it, but the title alone made me cringe. I'd forgotten all about it until this book. I'm thankful I had the dull Swanwick book to turn to, because it turns out that in Xanth, the sheer sight of panties sends man into a daze. Over, and over, and over again, starting on page 9. By page 34 I began to despair, and by page 47 I began to wonder if I could survive. Eventually, though, I just accepted that the book would be irredeemably juvenile, and the shock wore off. The puns were a similar problem. By page 11 I was already thinking there were too many of them, some obvious, some a long stretch. Then the sexism became truly overt - e.g., lying and seducing is an inevitable and unconscious "part of the are of being female". Wheareas "men have small minds". Which presumably explains why the males in the book spend all their time looking at breasts. And panties. Never forget the panties. Panties, puns, and sexism - that's the book in a nutshell. Plus, on the happier side, straightforward prose, and a thorough, logical approach to puzzles. The puzzles themselves are pretty random, and they don't make a whole lot of sense, but within this limited world, Anthony's reasonably rigorous about solving them.
So, the book's pretty bad, and the series looks like it may have been bad for the last 30 books. How does it survive?
Author's notes. Anthony has plenty of weaknesses, but what's he's really good at is engaging with his readers. His books contain long, detailed author's notes that are warm, friendly, and engaging. He really does seem to enjoy a back and forth with his fans, to the extent that this book is entirely based on a fan's suggestion. And that's the key to the whole thing, I think. Anthony has given up really writing Xanth, and basically uses each book to cram in as many suggestions (especially puns) as possible. So, this book was pretty terrible, but it was squarely aimed at the people who enjoy the series. It's a crowd-sourced novel, which is interesting in itself. It's a bad novel, and Anthony seems more than a little defensive about it, but why should he care? He's got an audience, they like him, he likes them, and he's written a heck of a lot of books. Not bad.
In short, this is a juvenile, sexist, simplistic book, but one that committed Xanth fans will love.