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Sleight of Hand by Peter S Beagle

Sleight of Hand, another excellent collection from Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon Publications, 2011) sees us enter the world of love — not as portrayed on the pages of romantic fiction, you understand, for that would be a big turn-off for many readers. Without wanting to get into gender politics, the macho culture denies interest in the emotional side of the world, referring contemptuously to sentimentality in the more mawkish sense of the word. Even holding such a book in their hands has a tendency to make them feel nauseous. Allowing for this, Sleight of Hand is a book to help even the most prejudiced readers overcome their antipathies, being sincere in its desire to deal with every possible shade of love you could imagine, and then a few that never occurred to you. Here fantasy meets supernatural as gods debate with their children how many shades of love there are.

We start with “The Rock in the Park”, a pseudo-autobiographical story from Beagle’s youth, telling how he and a friend rescued three centaurs who had lost their way and ended up in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. Magic is magic whether you tell it as fiction or truth.

“Sleight of Hand” (first appearing in Eclipse Three) is a story of love. What would we give up for the ones we love? Assuming it to be true love, of course? There’s no knowing how deeply selfishness may penetrate even the most apparently loving person until we are tested. Death tests us. When someone we love is taken from us in an accident. . . At first comes the grief. Later, if we are lucky, acceptance follows. But there may come a moment when a choice could be offered. It would appear like magic, like one of those tricks we call sleight of hand. Suppose we could take the place of the one who died. . . Would we? Could we?

“Children of the Shark God” is also a story of love, this time between an absent father and his family. Some men are faithful. They put down roots and stay with the women they love, take pride in the children as they grow. Others never want the commitment. They love in the abstract, afraid that, if they care too much, they will be hurt when their wives die before them. And the children? Well, in a way, watching them die would be worse than watching the wives die. Once they have invested the time and effort in watching these insensible lumps of flesh grow into images of themselves, it’s too late to stop caring what happens to them.

“The Best Worst Monster” takes a Frankenstein theme to heart, wondering whether the monster you create comes with a soul. What is a soul anyway? Perhaps it’s only a sense of what’s right and wrong. Perhaps it’s only a guilty conscience when you do wrong. Perhaps it’s the love and friendship you find in other people. Such are the things monsters are thinking about when they walk about the town.

Peter S Beagle demonstrates the idea of a fantasy forest

“What Tune the Enchantress Plays” takes us back to the Innkeeper’s World, this time considering the price to be paid for following your heart when it comes to love. In many civilisations, marriages are arranged to hold wealth in a family or transmit a status to the children. Some children are brought up to be submissive, to follow in the tradition handed down from one generation to the next. Other children rebel, innocently at first, not realising how much they are stepping outside the boxes their parents have constructed for them. But once they face the reality of the opposition and the extent of the manipulations some families will engage in to prevent a marriage deemed unsuitable, then they face the hard choice of submission or finding the courage to follow their own hearts.

“La Lune T’Attend” shows how deep flows the love of grandparents when they see their children threatened. Sometimes they must make sacrifices but, if they do, it will always be the youngest who will hold their memories most clearly in mind. As always, the magic will come from the way they choose to go. “Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers” shows how the passion can disappear from a relationship to be replaced by the routine of the wife keeping the place tidy and her feckless husband fed. No matter how you try to deceive yourself, there comes a point when you just wish your husband would take a trip somewhere and leave you in peace.

“The Rabbi’s Hobby” (first appearing in Eclipse Two) wonders what happens to a family when a mother dies early. The tragedy might be worse than you know if a baby sister also dies but the father never tells the surviving daughter. To live in a house with such grief inevitably colours the rest of your life and, perhaps, leaves that life like a lock that has no key. Suppose such a daughter, now grown older, gets a telephone call from an unknown Rabbi with a bee in his bonnet about a photograph. By one of these fortuitous coincidences, perhaps that Rabbi also has a hobby of collecting keys. Bringing all the interested parties together as a young boy goes through his Bar Mitzvah could find the right place for the key to fit.

“Oakland Dragon Blues” is a simple and elegant metafictional piece about the unintended consequences of starting a story and then not finishing it. “The Bridge Partner” encourages us to think about the relationship between the hunter and the prey, a theme carried over into “Dirae” (first appearing in Warriors) that lets us watch our well-motivated, but bloodthirsty, heroine struggle with problems of identity and motivation. It’s classical mythology meets John 15:13 where a woman shows great love by laying down her life for unknown friends in danger. “Vanishing” is a kind of Twilight Zone episode in which the spirits of those traumatised by a death on the Berlin Wall gather together to find peace of mind if not redemption. And finally, “The Woman Who Married the Man In the Moon” is a bitter-sweet story of the magic in love. Two lost children may bring a man home with them, but their mother may not be prepared to lose her heart again if it means leaving the children behind. Such are the chains that bind us in our lonely roles.

As collections go, Sleight of Hand is one of the best by a master storyteller on top form. What makes Peter S Beagle so remarkable is the consistency of his work. Even when he fails to completely resolve everything to perfection, he’s still better than most other writers working in the fantasy field. The reason is easy to find. He always writes about people who feel real. Even when the context is a different world with supernatural creatures and magic that works, the characters are in the foreground, striving the best they can for their heart’s desire.

For reviews of other books by Peter S Beagle, see Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story, We Never Talk About My Brother, and Strange Roads.

For the record, Sleight of Hand was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Collection.

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