Peter S. Beagle will probably always be best known for The Last Unicorn, the 1968 fantasy novel many consider his masterpiece, but the author has assembled a long and impressive bibliography since this perennial classic, including several excellent short story collections. The most recent of these is Sleight of Hand, recently released by Tachyon. If all you know of Peter S. Beagle is The Last Unicorn, this is as good an opportunity as any to jump in and explore the author’s shorter works.
Sleight of Hand offers thirteen stories that stretch to the far corners of the fantasy field, from cute children’s tales to ghost and werewolf stories, from traditional, straightforward narratives to more challenging fiction, and from humor to the most painful emotions. With such variety, you’re more or less guaranteed to find something you like here.
Peter S. Beagle has one of the most distinct and recognizable voices in fantasy fiction. His writing style sometimes reminds me of the lyrics of Paul Simon, because Beagle has the same ability to sound at the same time tentative and utterly exact in his choices. His writing is never overbearing, often gently humorous, always subtle and eloquent. In fact, it’s so gentle and unassuming that it’s easy to miss how delicately each sentence and paragraph have been constructed. It’s all easily enjoyable and readable, but there aren’t very many people out there who could put a story together with such precision.
Nevertheless, as with almost any collection, some stories in Sleight of Hand are stronger than others. While none of them are anything less than good, the book contains a few stories that feel considerably less substantial than the others, which is a shame in a collection that’s already short at under 300 pages. Interestingly, I felt that most of the stronger stories were clustered toward the end of the book, with some of the less impressive ones appearing early on.
Here are three of the most memorable stories:
- “Dirae” is probably the most challenging story in Sleight of Hand, as well as the one that’s least recognizable as a Peter S. Beagle story. I won’t try to summarize it here because it’s best to let you approach it without any preconceived notions, but “Dirae” is a true tour de force that bears reading and rereading a few times.
- “Vanishing” is a chilling and touching story in which a former American soldier, now an old man, mysteriously finds himself transported back to the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. He encounters the Russian soldier who faced him in the corresponding checkpoint on the other side of the Wall, as well as a younger man who has been drawn there for a different, but ultimately connected, reason. “Vanishing” is one of those stories that will stick with you for a long time, because of its dark, claustrophobic atmosphere and emotional conclusion.
- One of my favorite stories by Peter S. Beagle is “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel” (from 2009’s We Never Talk about My Brother), because it mixes fantastical elements with very realistic (and, I believe, somewhat autobiographical) impressions of growing up as a young Jewish boy in New York in the middle of the last century. Sleight of Hand offers a similar and equally wonderful story in “The Rabbi’s Hobby,” about a boy studying Hebrew for his upcoming bar mitzvah, and his rabbi who grows increasingly more fascinated with a mysterious girl pictured in old magazine advertisements. This is one of those perfect pieces of fiction in which literally not a single word could be changed without making it less perfect.
While these three are my personal favorites in this collection, there are several others that are more than worthy of mentioning. “La Lune T’Attend” is a great Cajun werewolf story set in the Deep South. “The Rock in the Park” is another one of Peter S. Beagle’s eloquent evocations of childhood, this time describing a young boy’s meeting with a family of centaurs in Central Park. “Oakland Dragon Blues” is a neat meta-fictional account of a dragon’s meeting with the writer who created him. “The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon” is a story about The Last Unicorn’s Schmendrick, whereas “What Tune the Enchantress Plays” is set in the same world as Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song.
Just like all the great authors working in the genre, Peter S. Beagle uses fantasy to examine the most straightforward, non-fantastical, human aspects of our lives. In Sleight of Hand, he offers thirteen excellent examples of why he’s one of the better fantasists working today. Recommended.