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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.

Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story by Peter S. Beagle

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m rarely tempted to repeat an introduction to one of these reviews but, on this occasion, I think it appropriate. Charles Dickens opens David Copperfield musing on “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life. . .” In our more private moments, we all create stories for ourselves in which we achieve great things. It passes the time and can leave a positive view of possible futures. In this spirit, I’m tempted to place Peter S. Beagle as the hero in his own fantasy mythology. Here’s a real-life Rip Van Winkle of writers. Legend has him arriving on this plane in the primordial past (sometimes boringly referred to as 1939). Like all good superheroes in the making, he lurks in the shadows until emerging with A Fine and Private Place in 1960 as the taster for The Last Unicorn, published in 1968 and one of the one-hundred best fantasy novels of all-time. He then slept for eighteen years, finally awaking to write The Folk of the Air in 1986. A further brief slumber takes us to The Innkeeper’s Song in 1993, followed by Giant Bones in 1997, a collection of stories set in the Innkeeper’s World. This seems to have finally jerked him more fully into our time frame and, after the years of sleep, he’s now able to stay awake for weeks, giving him more than enough time to become prolific, turning out short stories, novelettes and novellas as if there’s no tomorrow. Truly, he has become a writer of heroic proportions, recently being nominated for and winning both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He’s also been nominated for the World Fantasy Award while picking up one of these Outstanding Achievement Awards that we give to our revered elders.

Peter S. Beagle

So, with Return, we’re back in the world of the Innkeeper. Karsh keeps The Gaff and Slasher. It’s a watering hole outside Corcuna and, in the first outing, we’re introduced to a number of people including Lal and Nyateneri who, for reasons that need not concern us here, becomes Soukyan later in the first book. Soukyan and Lal reappear in Giant Bones and Soukyan is the hero of Return. For those of you who like perfect information, Soukyan also appears in a novelette called “Quarry” which is collected in The Line Between.

Return fills in the backstory, explaining where Soukyan grew up and why he is pursued. In some ways, it’s not typical Beagle in that we have a linear adventure narrative rather than one of the more usual personal stories in which people discover something important about themselves and/or find redemption. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this is a rather routine story in which our hero fights the good fight, not quite in barbarian rippling-muscle mode, but with his bow and a knife. In the end, he prevails, as all heroes in fantasy adventures must, but we have no real sense that he is seriously worried by his increasingly precarious situation. Whether he is fighting for his life or enduring a session of torture, he always seems detached, merely waiting for the next turn of events to set him back on track again. If Beagle is offering us a message it is that some people rightly turn down access to power. This is rather on a par with Star Wars in which the Jedi reject the dark side of the Force even though it potentially offers more power. They know that the more power one has, the greater the risk of being corrupted by it. Not very profound is it. Worse, Soukyan actually does have personal power in magic denied to others. He’s already the superior of the average human so, in rejecting membership of the mysterious organisation, he’s not really losing out that much.

This is not to deny the ingenuity both of the source of the hunters that pursue Soukyan and of the explanation for luring him back. Indeed, this inventiveness almost saves the whole. But, sadly, the overall feel is rather mechanical, particularly as it affects the behaviour of Brother Laska. So I find myself disappointed. In reaching this conclusion, I admit that my expectations for any story by Peter Beagle are always high and, in his defence, this is one of the few stories that have disappointed over the last ten years. If you come to him without having read much of his work, you might find this a ripping yarn and be mightily impressed. For those of you who, like me, have read everything he has written, this is not one of his best.

The jacket art and interior illustrations are by Maurizio Manzieri. It’s probably my eyesight, but there seems to be something wrong with the perspective of the illustration showing Soukyan drawing his bow, but the general effect is reasonably pleasing. This is another of these Subterranean Press signed and limited editions. For me, it’s not quite worth the money but, with any luck, it will hold most of its value until I decide to sell it on.

For other reviews of work by Peter S. Beagle, see We Never Talk About My Brother, Sleight of Hand, and Strange Roads.

We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle

Ants, wasps and bees are social insects. They live harmoniously in their colonies and, in their insect way (not meaning to be too patronising here) work for the common good, defending their own, and solving all the problems that come their way as best they can. Not, of course, that I envy insects. But they are an interesting point of contrast to us humans. We seem to have great difficulty in all our relationships, work only when we must, and conspicuously fail to solve most of our problems. It seems we pay a high price for what we call “intelligence”. Look at how successful insects have been. They have colonised most of the planet without feeling the need to develop massive brain power. Why? Because they avoid the bear pit of emotions that bedevils our lives. Just think of all the problems caused by love and hate, fear and anger. Our lack of trust fuels the fear. We seem doomed to disappointment with ourselves and others. All of which brings me to We Never Talk About My Brother.

This is another collection from Tachyon Publications which, over some fifteen years, has been slowly but steadily building itself into one of the better small presses. It’s always pleasing when a delicate flower grows sturdy and diversifies from its initial one-trick pony status as Peter S. Beagle’s publisher*. As I write this, we have good news for this latest collaboration between writer and publisher: “By Moonlight” won the Locus Award for the Best Novelette. The collection itself is shortlisted for an award of Best Collection in the World Fantasy Awards for 2010. I am coming to this book late in the day, playing catch-up.

Fortunately for me as a reviewer, three of the stories have already been collected in Strange Roads. Click through for the missing reviews. This thins down the wordage and gives me a chance to focus on the main theme to these stories which is easily stated: the strengths and weakness of the human heart.

Brothers! Life would be so easy if they could just get along. But there’s always this competition based on birth order. Except. . . Well, sometimes the older is the wiser and chooses to step back and avoid confrontation. Not because he fears his younger brother — who knows how much bigger and stronger the older may be — but because he has a live-and-let-live approach to life. Except. . . Well, there may come a time when the older can no longer look the other way given the excesses of the younger. If he was to step out of the shadows. . . Well, if he did and no matter what the result, “We (the family would) Never Talk About [My] the fight between the Brother(s)”. It would be just too painful to recall.

“The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is an elegiac lament on the willingness of people to allow envy to colour their relationships. What makes this story such an achingly beautiful tragedy is the unselfish love that is lost. If people could only see what value they have in their lives and be satisfied with it, they could be happy and contented. But frustration and ambition changes people. Imagine a mighty Lord who, unusually for his culture, is prepared to accept people for what they are and reward them on their merits. He has broken convention by allowing a commoner to enter his household as a huntsman. Once this door is open, the simple peasant begins to lose his innocence. The question of his status haunts him. Where does he fit in? What are his just deserts? In his village, such questions would never have troubled his mind. But in a highly political court and a stratified class system, they are unavoidable. People change through force of circumstances. It may be just in external appearance as they adapt to their new environments. More alarmingly, the changes may be in their hearts. Perhaps there is a monster lurking inside all of us, just waiting for the chance to show itself.

“The Last and Only, or Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” also deals with a change in the heart as Mr. Moscowitz slowly loses his identity as an American and becomes a French archetype. In fact, so perfect is his transformation that he becomes the standard by which Frenchness is to be measured. This is all well and good, but what is he supposed to do when, having relocated to France, he finds they are just, well, not French enough? If this is a coming-of-nationality story, “The Stickball Witch” is a delightful coming-of-age story. Ah those happy days when traffic was so infrequent we could all play safely in the streets. Like Beagle, I miss the communal lives we led as children. This is not to say parents were any less mindful or caring. But, when daylight came during school holidays, the streets were our home. In my town, the problems came from a rival group of children (I hesitate to use the word “gang” because that has acquired rather more dark overtones). We agreed to disagree and divided the town into mutual no-go areas. Beagle’s witch turns out to have a rather more impish sense of humour, but she also guards her territory.

“By Moonlight” explores the nature of love a man may have. One may find God but then be seduced. Another may never know religion but be all too familiar with the betrayals of women. If two such men were to meet, they would have interesting things to say to each other. It might be world-weary. After all, trust is one of the first things lost when relationships are broken. But in reality, men are stronger creatures. They may be driven on by the obsession they can recapture what has been taken from them. They may be running from a world that never seems to appreciate them except for the reward money to be earned by turning them in. So husbands may betray the lovers taken by their wives. Mistresses may sell their lovers to the law enforcement agencies. It’s all the same really. No matter which side of the fence you may think you are on. “The Unicorn Tapestries” is also about betrayal except. . . Can you ever really capture a dream?

Finally in “Chandail” we look into the secret recesses of a woman’s mind. How should she feel when her family sold her into slavery? What would she say if she had the chance to talk with the one who betrayed her? There are answers offered here as the woman enters into a strange communion with a semi-telepathic sea creature. In making the physical attempt to save the creature, she overcomes her anger and fear. The question is whether such conquests mean love has a chance to grow again.

This collection deserves to win the “Best” award. Reading anthologies, it’s always a delight to come across a new story by Beagle. Being able to walk through the pages of this collection with a man so suffused with humanity is a privilege and a delight. If you have not already discovered Beagle, you should buy this collection as a first introduction.

* As further examples of the symbiotic relationship between authors and small press publishers, consider F. Paul Wilson and Gauntlet Press and Joe R. Lansdale and Subterranean Press.

As an added note, this collection was shortlisted in the category of Best Collection for the World Fantasy Award 2010 but, sadly, did not win.

For reviews of other collections by Peter S. Beagle, see Sleight of Hand and Strange Roads.

Strange Roads by Peter S. Beagle

April 28, 2010 1 comment

First a word in support of Greg Ketter at DreamHaven. Greg has been running an independent and specialist bookstore for some thirty-three years. More importantly, he also puts his money where his bookseller’s mouth is and publishes books by the authors he likes. We are currently running through a chapbook series with stories from Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Larry Niven and Strange Roads by Peter S. Beagle based on the artwork of Lisa Snellings-Clark. Everyone who values knowledge, expertise and high-quality service should support DreamHaven in all its incarnations.

I am also a life-long fan of Peter Beagle. There is a magical simplicity about his writing. When you start, the premise can look inauspicious, but he always seems to come up with stories of such humanity that you end up beguiled. In this instance, we have three short stories inspired by the work of Lisa Snellings-Clark. I confess to having a strong preference for representational art, finding more abstract forms less engaging. In this instance, it’s actually quite interesting to see how Beagle reacted to the three pieces.

The first represents the game jacks and a kind of obviously childish but perhaps slightly militaristic rocking horse. The result is called “King Pelles The Sure”, another example of the fairy story as a morality tale. It’s when, “boring is good” meets, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you are a citizen in a small state where you have peace and stability, the chance to earn your living and a loving family, you live in a good place. There are times when predictability is to be embraced even though, once the routines are in place, life just runs itself, i.e. this may not be a place for the ambitious or greedy who always want more. As the King of such a country, you might feel almost completely redundant. Looking out of your castle windows, all you see are contented folk. Where’s the challenge in that. Kings are remembered because they rule. History may not be kind if you garnered the reputation as the hands-off king. So in this story, the King selfishly elects to introduce a little uncertainty. This proves a catastrophic misjudgement and then we are into the question of accountability. Can a King ever atone for the losses he causes?

The second piece of art appears on the wrapper and looks not unlike three sea cucumbers at play. Beagle prefers to see one “Spook” bent on asserting his right to revenge. This  is the least successful of the three. It’s on the edge of failure because Beagle wants to showcase bad writing rather than produce his own high-quality prose throughout. Which brings us to the sculpture of the angel. In “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”, we are into semi-autobiographical territory with a young boy spending significant amounts of his time watching his Uncle paint. The resulting story is an interesting variation on the dybbuk theme. In the past, I have tended to associate the dybbuk with possession of the living. This story enables redemption and a rise to Heaven through sacrifice. Young boys can acknowledge and confront their fears. Artists can grow obsessive when they cannot quite capture what they see on canvas, and angels are there to help relieve our fears. This is an elegant story in which all the characters are actually trying to do the right things and, for the most part, succeeding albeit not quite in the way we might have thought.

If you enjoy Peter Beagle’s writing, these three stories will make a satisfying addition to your collection. Obviously, as a chapbook, it’s slightly more expensive than the conventional “book” but, for me, it’s good value.

As an added note, this slim volume was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award 2009 for Best Collection.

For reviews of other collections by Peter S. Beagle, see Sleight of Hand and We Never Talk About My Brother. There’s also Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story.

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