- The Good: Short story collection of quiet, comforting magical realism
- The Bad: Wide breadth of subjects; it’s best to give a little time between each piece of fiction
- The Literary: Personal chapter introductions from the author
Peter S. Beagle, best known for the The Last Unicorn, is one of my favorite authors. With an ability to seamlessly move from reality to fantasy, his stories possess an authenticity of truth. In this group of stories, Beagle seems to write about people in his life, both from childhood and adulthood, and I’m surprised how well he translates them to characters on the page.
In this second volume of his essential collection, I again note the breadth of genres—from children’s to adult stories, fairy tales to urban fantasy, with dragons, unicorns, werewolves, and ghosts. There are a few more stories that fall on the scifi side of this typically fantasy-focused author. Many stories are gritty, with high stakes and action-packed fight scenes. But, in the end, there is always an elegance and grace that round out this contemplative magical realism collection.
The stories in order:
- Sleight of Hand – ★★★★★ – A woman sets off in her car with no destination after the loss of her husband and daughter. She becomes fascinated with a magician in a small town diner, and although she doesn’t remember him, she may have met him before. Step outside of time in this story about second chances.
- Oakland Dragon Blues – ★★★★★ – A dragon appears in a busy intersection in Oakland demanding to see his maker. A self-referential story on the magic of creation.
- The Rock in the Park – ★★★★★ – The first of five tall tales about Beagle’s childhood with his misfit friends in 1950s Bronx. One afternoon while Peter and his friend Phil lounge on their favorite giant rock in Central Park, a family of centaurs timidly asks for directions.
- The Rabbi’s Hobby – ★★★★★ – While preparing for his bar mitzvah, a young boy and his Rabbi become fascinated with a young woman on an old magazine cover, who it seems upon some investigation never existed. I love the interplay between the two narratives in this one, and how they come together at the end.
- The Way It Works Out And All – ★★★★★ – Beagle’s friend Avram sends postcards from around the world one day after the other, too fast to have covered the distance by standard travel. Over dinner, the friend reveals his method—a special inter-dimensional mode of travel through the Overneath. Suprisingly suspenseful and terrifying.
- The Best Worst Monster – ★★★★☆ – A hideous monster, created by his master to sow fear and destruction, develops a conscience. A sweet little morality tale about living with Beppo the Beggar as inspiration.
- La Tune T’Attend– ★★★★★ – Two aging Cajun werewolves, who never revealed their true nature to their wives and children, must protect themselves and their families when an old enemy returns. A real supernatural territorial battle of vengence.
- The Story of Kao Yu – ★★★★☆ – A traveling judge, fair and patient and stern, respected by all, often deferred the most heinous of crimes to the judgement of chi-lin, the Chinese unicorn. But when Kao Yu falls in love with a small-time thief, he sacrifies his purity, his truth, and his relationship with chi-lin.
- Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again and We’ll Be Glad to See You! – ★★★★☆ – A police officer and his perky new young partner investigate small-time illegal dragon breeding operations in rural Trinity County, California. Surprisingly gruff and procedural, with the magic of extremely dangerous dragons.
- Marty and The Messenger – ★★★★☆ – The second tale in this collection about young Peter and his childhood friends. Marty is the small one with the limp, a polio survior, but he’ss also the smartest kid in the group, so it’s no suprise to Peter when an alien species contacts Marty through his lunch jello to ask for assistance preventing the decline of their species. Most of the childhood stories have a magical realism, but this one falls a little too far outside of the realm of possibility for me. Still, it’s cute.
- The Mantichora – ★★★★☆ – The second story in this collection about Beagle’s friend Avram, who is the last person on Earth to speak Mountain Mantichora, mostly because he’s the only known survior after speaking with a Mantichora. A Yeti also makes an appearance.
- Mr. McCaslin – ★★★★★ – Another tale about Peter’s childhood, with all his friends in tow, as they help a dying man finish a long letter to his estranged daughter. If only they can keep death, in the form of a dark terrier, from getting into his apartment. This may be my favorite of the whole collection.
- The Fifth Season – ★★★★☆ – The last supernatural childhood tale in which one of Peter’s friends’ deceased father shows them a horde of waterguns, with which they spend all daying playing in the park. This one isn’t as much about ghosts as it is about the make-believe of childhood battles and truces, and wishing the magic of childhood would last forever.
- Tarzan Swings by Barsoom – ★★★★☆ – What if Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars got in fight?
- The Bridge Partner – ★★★★★ – Mattie’s new bridge partner seems normal, but at the end of every game and encounter, whispers discreetly so no one else can hear, I will kill you. I see myself in timid Mattie, and this story kept me awake at night, reading feverishly under the covers.
- Vanishing – ★★★★★ – The last thing Jansen remembers is waiting for his pregnant daughter in the lobby of the doctor’s office. He awakens in a place from his previous life, serving as a guard at the Berlin Wall. But upon further exploration, beyond the Wall is only emptiness. There is only Jansen, the Wall, and ghosts of his past.
And don’t forget to take a few moments to appreciate the gorgeous illustrations from Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. Highly recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Susanna Clarke!