Saturday, April 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Peter S. Beagle

Today is Peter S. Beagle's 80th birthday. I've a huge fan of his for years, but less than I should have been -- I bought copies of The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place back in the mid-'70s but for hard to figure reasons I didn't really read Beagle until the 21st century -- and then I realized what I'd been missing! Happily, though, my time at Locus has corresponded with a really impressive late career run of short fiction from Beagle.

I have met Peter Beagle once or twice -- certainly at Archon a few years ago, and I was able to ask him about Robert Nathan. I'd noticed a distinct kinship in tone (and, perhaps, setting) between A Fine and Private Place and One More Spring ... and Beagle was happy to call Nathan a writer he really admired.

Anyway, here are my reviews, mostly from Locus, of much of Beagle's lovely recent stories:

Locus, May 2004

Closing the May F&SF is Peter S. Beagle's "Quarry". This is as good an adventure fantasy story as I've seen in some time. The narrator is a young man, fleeing an unspecified horrible fate in "that place", pursued by supernatural "Hunters". He meets up with a cynical old man fleeing from a different sort of monster. The two make an alliance of convenience, but the old man has another plan in mind, involving yet another monster. This is a lively, amusing, imaginative, and exciting tale.

Locus, October 2005

It’s Double Issue Time – both Asimov’s and F&SF publish special issues dated October/November. Let’s begin with F&SF. The cover story is “Two Hearts”, by Peter S. Beagle, a sequel to his beloved novel The Last Unicorn. We are told that this story is the bridge to a new novel expected soon. It will certainly do in the mean time. It’s the story of a young girl who decides to accost her King after her village has been ravaged by a griffin. The King is one of the heroes of The Last Unicorn, much aged, and the young girl also meets Schmendrick and Molly Gloss on her journey. The story does read like a bridge to a new story, but an effective and moving bridge.

Locus, June 2006

The third issue of Fantasy Magazine (to which I contribute short reviews) has appeared, headlined by an absolutely wonderful new novelette from Peter Beagle, “Salt Wine”. It’s told by an old sailor, whose voice Beagle captures perfectly. The sailor had a friend, who one day saves a merrow (or merman) from a shark. The merrow gives him a treasure: the recipe for salt wine. Salt wine turns out to be a fabulous drink, and the friend enlists our narrator to help him market this, with at first great success. But there is a dark side, a very surprising one, and the realization of this aspect gives the story a strong moral dimension, turning an absorbing sea story into something darker, something quite beautiful and also heartbreaking. I’d say this was the story of the year if I hadn’t already nominated M. Rickert’s “Journey Into the Kingdom” – but who says we can’t have two stories of the year?

Locus, October 2006

Always welcome is a new Peter Beagle story, and “El Regalo” (F&SF, October-November) certainly satisfies, if it can’t quite be ranked among his very best stories. It’s a tale of a girl with a younger brother who is a witch. Her brother is of course a pest, and when he gets himself in trouble, she reluctantly (or not so much!) must rescue him. The resolution is satisfying enough, but details nagged me – for example, the girl should clearly be in high school as described, but her age is given as 12.

Review of The Line Between, early 2007, for Fantasy Magazine

(I'm not sure this ever appeared in Fantasy, but I believe I wrote it for them.)

The Line Between, by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon, 1-892391-36-8, $14.95, 232pp, tpb) 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

Peter S. Beagle has had a long career and is already a legend for such novels as The Last Unicorn and such short fiction as “Farrell and Lila the Werewolf”. But just in the past few years he has produced a string of wonderful shorter works that rank with the best work of his career. This collection includes most of those recent stories, including a few new to 2006, as well as one or two older pieces. Beagle’s characters are the heart of his works – thoroughly believable, often a bit battered, often somewhat worldy wise. Though he also depicts much younger characters very well.

The very moving closing story, “A Dance for Emilia”, tells of a late-middle-aged actor mourning the death of his childhood friend, a critic, in the company of that friend’s young lover, and of his strangely possessed cat. “Two Hearts” is a lovely sequel to The Last Unicorn. “Quarry” is first rate adventure fantasy, with a young man fleeing scary monsters meeting an older man and joining with him, only to face another monster. “Salt Wine”, one of my favorites here (though the stories are wonderful throughout – hard to name a favorite) is an absorbing sea story about a sailor and the formula for a special drink he gets from a merman (or merrow), with a sharply pointed moral dimension. “Mr. Sigerson” is a satisfyingly different Sherlock Holmes story, featuring Holmes under the title alias spending time playing violin for a backwoods Central European orchestra – only mysteries to solve find him there as well. “El Regalo” and “Gordon, the Self-Made Cat” are both focused a bit on younger readers – but quite fine for adults – the first about a young Korean-American boy who is a witch, and his long-suffering sister, the second about a mouse who wants to be a cat. We also get “Four Fables”, three of them brand new, mostly cynical (though with heart) short pieces about such subjects as a Tyrannosaurus told of the coming asteroid.

What more can I say? There are simply delightful stories – a lovely lovely collection from one of the best contemporary fantasists.

Locus, October 2007

Peter Beagle’s “We Never Talk About My Brother”, from the July Intergalactic Medicine Show, is another strong story from this wonderful writer. Jacob and Esau are brothers. (With those names, could they be anything but?) Esau has a sinister power – he can change the near past, and he uses this power to arrange his world has he wants, beginning with making it so that a neighborhood bully has already died. He goes on to a successful career as a network anchor – and what might such a man do with such power? But it turns out Jake has some abilities of his own, which are slowly revealed as he describes a visit Esau makes home to film a TV special. In the end we see that some people rend and some mend.

Locus, June 2008

Peter S. Beagle’s new chapbook, Strange Birds, features three stories based on the artwork of Lisa Snellings-Clark. “King Pelles the Sure” tells of a small and peaceful kingdom whose ruler longs for a small war – only to find, tragically, that war is not so easy to control. At first a bit schematic, the story becomes profoundly moving at the end, after the King and his Grand Vizier, consumed with guilt, flee their conquered palace and find haven at a remote farm. When the ravages of war reach even there, the now ex-King tries to find redemption. “Spook” is less serious, a trifle really, but quite enjoyable, featuring Beagle’s recurring character Farrell battling a ghost haunting his and his lover’s new studio. The longest story is “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”, and it too, after a slowish start, builds to a powerful conclusion. A boy in the middle of the last century hangs out at his Uncle Chaim’s studio, watching the old man paint. So he witnesses the arrival of an angel, who commands that she become Chaim’s muse. The angel is not to be gainsaid, and Chaim soon paints only her, but becomes obsessed, so his wife Rifke eventually is compelled to intervene, leading to the revelation of the angel’s secret … a terribly sad secret, resolved quite beautifully here.

Locus, August 2008

The latest SFBC anthology of original novellas is Marvin Kaye’s A Book of Wizards. The prize story here is Peter S. Beagle’s “What Tune the Enchantress Plays”, about the daughter of a sorceress who is a powerful enchantress herself, and what happens when her mother reminds her that the boy she loves is not of her sort, and so their children won’t be magicians. The story is at once sweet and wise and a bit bitter in its revelation of family stresses.

Locus, September 2008

Intergalactic Medicine Show for July has another fine new story from Peter Beagle. “The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is a Japanese-set fantasy. A commoner named Junko has attained some status in the household of a samurai, Lord Kuroda, because of his prowess as a hunter. But as a commoner his future is limited. One day he saves an otter who he has accidentally shot – and of course the otter turns out to be a beautiful shapechanging woman, Sayuri. The two marry, and before long Sayuri is scheming for Junko’s advancement – at first a good thing, but the story turns on the dangers of too much ambition. Beagle never fails to engross and also to center his stories on a true moral point without moralizing.

Review of Eclipse Two (Locus, November 2008)

Of the fantasies here, best probably is the remarkable Peter S. Beagle’s “The Rabbi’s Hobby”, set just after the Second World War, concerning a boy studying Hebrew with a Rabbi fascinated by, among other things, old magazine covers, in particular a certain mysterious photographer’s model. The two try to uncover her identity, and learn something quite moving. Nancy Kress’s “Elevator” is a sort of existentialist fantasy about critical junctures in the lives of people trapped on an elevator.

Locus, May 2009

You can’t turn around these days without seeing another Peter S. Beagle story – and that’s a good thing! His range is further demonstrated with “Vanishing”, in March’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, which tells of an old man, trying in vain to mend his relationship with his pregnant daughter, who is suddenly snatched away to a mysterious reenactment of his time as an American soldier monitoring the Berlin Wall, particularly his witness of a woman trying to escape East Berlin who is shot down by the Russian guards. The story moving examines the effect of these events on the old man, on a younger man with a very personal connection to the escapee, and on the Russian guard who was forced to shoot the woman. Responsibility, and parenthood, and how they interact, all collide. Beagle also has a new collection, We Never Talk About My Brother, with some strong new stories among a group of very recent reprints – I particularly liked “By Moonlight”, in which a highwayman in Shakespearean England happens upon an old clergyman who tells him a strange, sad, story of his love for the Queen of Faery.

Locus, April 2010

Full Moon City is an urban fantasy anthology about werewolves, which on the face of it is a pretty tired theme, these days. But it has a heck of a list of contributors, and it rises well above the average urban fantasy anthology. ... More straight-faced is “La Lune T’Attend”, by Peter S. Beagle, about a pair of loup garoux from “Sout’ Louisiana”, a black man and a white man, now well into their 60s. Decades past they had to deal with another werewolf, less bound by morality than they are, but to their horror they learn that he has returned, and is threatening their family. So they must confront him again, aching knees and all. The Cajun and Creole voices, the evocation of a New Orleans family, are beautifully done, and the story is as ever with Beagle grounded and touching.

Review of Warriors (Locus, May 2010)

And finally Peter S. Beagle’s “Dirae” is perhaps as ambitious a story as any here, but somehow it never quite connected with me. It’s about a woman compelled to appear suddenly to rescue, almost superhero fashion, victims of injustice, and her search for a solid identity.  Again, I can only say it didn’t quite catch fire.

Locus, August 2010

Peter S. Beagle’s “Return” (Subterranean, Spring) is a new Innkeeper’s World story. Soukyan is a bodyguard, but ever wary of the Hunters, who search for him in pairs, and will never stop until he is killed. As the story opens, he is again found by a pair of Hunters, and again bests them – but a surprising aspect of their attack leads him to very reluctantly return to what he calls “that place” – the “monastery” from which he escaped, and from whence come the Hunters to punish him for that betrayal. And his return forces him to confront what he knew in his deepest self about the nature and weaknesses of “that place”. Beagle remains an incomparable.

Locus, August 2011

Peter S. Beagle’s “The Way It Works Out and All” (F&SF, July-August) is a quite a different thing – it’s an hommage, a love letter almost, to Avram Davidson, with the author depicting a series of strange postcards from Davidson (entirely plausible seeming as to the prose!) from implausibly widely separated places, then a meeting in which Davidson shows Beagle the rather scary way he has learned to get around. I can’t say for sure if you need to already be a fan of both writers to like this story – but I am, and I did.

Locus, February 2017 in December features a new Peter S. Beagle piece, “The Story of Kao Yu”. The title character is a traveling judge in old China, very respected, and known for, in very serious cases, submitted the judgment to the Chinese unicorn, or Chi-Lin. But, the story seems to suggest, all men have weaknesses, and for an aging and lonely man, that weakness may well be manipulated by a beautiful young woman. And so with Kao Yu, who lets himself be bamboozled by the lovely Snow Ermine (if that was really her name), and defends her from the warnings of his loyal servants, and even, in the end, from the judgment of the Chi Lin. What happens doesn’t matter here so much as the warm telling, and the nicely depicted characters, major and minor.

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