"Five Portraits" is number thirty-nine in the sequence of Piers Anthony's "Xanth" comic fantasy stories which began with "A Spell for Chameleon" in 1977, and is a sequel to the previous book, "Board Stiff (Xanth Novels)." "Five Portraits" features the same cast of major characters and is mostly set after the conclusion of "Board Stiff" though it features a flashback early in the book which explains some of the backstory of certain characters, particularly Astrid the Basilisk. Two characters who often appeared in early books as a nuisance and a menace respectively - Demoness Mentia and Com-Pewter - are playing on the good team in both "Board Stiff" and "Five Portraits.
The series was a huge hit with fans and publishers - Piers Anthony is supposed to have said that the reason he is still writing Xanth books is to keep his publishers happy as the series is the only thing they ever pestered him for. Xanth is still going strong thirty-eight years of Earth time, a slightly higher number of books, and millions of copies after the 1977 debut.
"Five Portraits" and all the other books in the series are mostly set in a magical land called Xanth, a peninsular which usually looks a bit like Florida but can sometimes appear like other peninsulars such as Italy or Korea. All human residents of Xanth have a magic talent, which may vary from trivial to immensely powerful and from extremely useful to being a downright liability. The fauna, flora and geography of the land are based on a combination of legends and puns.
This story is told particularly from the viewpoint of Astrid the Basilisk, a member of the party which went on a quest in the previous book to prevent all the puns of Xanth from being wiped out by a pun-killer virus. Astrid can change between human and basilisk form, but in both forms her direct gaze can kill so she has to wear dark glasses or be careful not to look directly at someone to avoid killing them. And being a compassionate person she does not like killing. She also wants to help when she finds a group of five children who need to be rescued from a most unusual situation ...
The series as published and planned in November 2015 is as follows:
1 "A Spell for Chameleon" (1977), link A Spell for Chameleon 2 "The Source of Magic" (1979), link Source of Magic: Xanth Series, Book 2 3 "Castle Roogna" (1979), link Castle Roogna 4 "Centaur Aisle" (1982) 5 "Ogre, Ogre" (1982) 6 "Night Mare" (1983) 7 "Dragon on a Pedestal" (1983) 8 "Crewel Lye" (1984) 9 "Golem in the Gears" 10 "Vale of the Vole" (1987) 11 "Heaven Cent" (1988) 12 "Man from Mundania" (1989) 13 "Isle of View" (1990) 14 "Question Quest" (1991) 15 "The Color of Her Panties" (1992) 16 "Demons Don't Dream" (1992) 17 "Harpy Thyme" (1993) 18 "Geis of the Gargoyle" (1994) 19 "Roc and a Hard Place" (1995) 20 "Yon Ill Wind" (1996) 21 "Faun & Games" (1997) 22 "Zombie Lover" (1998) 23 "Xone of Contention" (1999) 24 "The Dastard" (2000) 25 "Swell Foop" (2001) 26 "Up In A Heaval" (2002) 27 "Cube Route" (2003) 28 "Currant Events" (2004) 29 "Pet Peeve" (2005) 30 "Stork Naked" (2006) 31 "Air Apparent" (2007) 32 "Two to the Fifth" (2008) 33 "Jumper Cable" (2009) 34 "Knot Gneiss" (2010) 35 "Well-Tempered Clavicle" (2011) 36 "Luck of the Draw" (2012) 37 "Esrever Doom" (2013) 38 "Board Stiff" (2014) 39 This Book, "Five Portraits" (2014) 40 "Isis Orb" (forthcoming) 41 "Ghost Writer in the Sky" (forthcoming)
A major part of the plot of the sixteenth book, "Demons don't dream" relates to a computer game about Xanth, and Legend Entertainment were licenced to bring out a real computer game shortly afterwards which had the same plot as the game in the book and the same name, "Companions of Xanth." This game was designed to run under DOS and is no longer available at Amazon UK although it can still be ordered from Amazon.com or downloaded as abandonware if you have a working computer old enough or flexible enough to run games designed for the specs and operating systems in place twenty years ago.
If you have the right sort of sense of humour, particularly a love of dreadful puns, this book and most of its' successors can be quite amusing. These books are not meant to be taken seriously.
Be warned that if you did take some of the Xanth books too seriously, they can come over as rather sexist even by the standards of the seventies, let alone those of today. Certain characters in the stories have unfortunate attitudes, to put it mildly, and the series has evolved its' own rather unique set of conventions about when nudity is or acceptable and how male characters react to the sight of a woman's underwear which may appear somewhere between childish, sexist, or just plain odd.
However, many of the accusations of sexism against Piers Anthony over the Xanth books are based on taking out of context, and assuming that the author is endorsing, views which in context are clearly presented for the specific purpose of disproving them. In many Xanth stories the bad guys make serious mistakes by underestimating the female characters and the heroines often find that they can achieve far more than their initial low expectations of themselves.
In context many of the antedeluvian attitudes to women attributed to characters in the Xanth books contribute to the failures suffered by those characters or are a sign that they are on the wrong side, and similar sexist perspectives initially attributed to heroes and heroines are sometimes there so that the characters concerned can grow by learning better.
As you work through the Xanth series new characters and themes are gradually introduced and old ones fade away, so it is not essential to read this series in sequence, though I personally prefer to do so. Often, as with Com-Pewter in this story, characters who have faded out come back or figures who have been in the background, often as nuisances or opponents, move centre stage and sometimes become heroes..
Worth a try if you enjoy fantasy and puns, are reasonably broad-minded, and able to avoid taking things too seriously or literally.