With The Source of Magic (1979), the tone of this and all other Xanth books change. Gone is the sexual comedy and extremely lighthanded humor that was A Spell For Chameleon, replaced instead by a very straightforward adventure book with humorous aspects. Three henpecked men go off in search of magic, and in the course of the adventure, discover things about themselves, and so establishing the the structural basis of all other Xanth novels to come. The characters featured our hard-headed and unspeakably lucky Bink, and reprises of Chet the Centaur and Crombie the Soldier.
This was the first Xanth novel that I ever read. (At the time, there were only two, so this was pretty easy to do.) After I read this book, I went back and found A Spell for Chameleon. So to me, this was the most definitive Xanth novel ever written because I was thirteen and this book was just AWESOME and I had never read anything like it before!!! Together, these make up the only two REAL Xanth books written because all the others don't star Bink. (Yeah, can you tell I was a Bink fan?)
We still get some sexiness and some chauvinism stuff thrown in there. There's more than enough buxom to go around, Even the land of Xanth itself has cleavage with the Gap. Can you get more titty worship than that? I don't think so.
The story opens with some ill-behaved women behaving badly. Chameleon, who was at least likeably while she was ugly, even if she was rough around the edges, has become a totally unsympathetic character. Queen Iris is off the rails. And whats-her-face is trying to entrap Crombie into marriage. It's now wonder that people think that this book is mysoginist. In truth, what's going on here is an archaic comedy trope where of course husbands are henpecked by their wives. This trope, so popular in the 40's and 50's, fell out of favor during the 60's presumably because divorce had become more common and couples were no longer stuck being married to each other. In other words, it stopped being funny.
Bink wants to find the source of magic. Chester wants to discover his magic talent. Crombie looking for an alternative to Sabrina. Humphry doesn't want to go at all, but he comes along anyway to great comedic use. And finally, we get a trash talking golem named Grumby who just wants to be real. Together, they tramp along the wilds of Xanth that seemed to always have people living nearby in an episodic construction that always introduces just enough trouble to push off success until the next chapter.
You can add or remove almost any chapter from this book and not harms its execution. That's what makes this thing a straightforward action-adventure. Your goalposts are necessary and everything else is just enough filler to make the book enjoyable, although it's also long enough that it also makes the book feel a little tedious, because adventure is what keeps the characters from immediately solving their problem.
Now that I've reread both of them, I must say that A Spell for Chameleon is technically and literarily the better book. I had a blast reading it. Writing comedy is hard and Piers succeeded wonderfully. The Source of Magic, although a generally humorous read, often had the feeling of wading through filler. You know while you're reading it that the side adventures are superfluous. A good editor could hack the book in half and the reader would never notice. Even so, if you need a change of pace, I can recommend the book. Nobody is trying to take over. The fate of the world is not at stake. No great fate rests on the protagonists shoulders. No, it's just a book about somes guys wanting to find the source of magic, which is all that the book claims to be.
I declare The Source of Magic to be a fine beer and pretzels book and approved reading for all Real Men.