I requested this book because I’ve come across the stories of Peter S. Beagle now and again in my magazine and anthology reviews and always liked them. A bit of research reveals that he is much lauded and awarded in the genre and rightly so, but I didn’t know that. Pleasing to find your own inclinations justified so.
‘Mirror Kingdoms: The Best Of Peter S. Beagle’ contains two categories of story: those set in our world and those set in a fantasy realm. I’ll consider the ‘realistic’ ones first, that is, the yarns not set in imaginary realms. ‘Professor Gottesman And The Indian Rhinoceros’ is about a middle-aged, absent-minded professor of philosophy at an ordinary university who has a rhinoceros from the zoo talking to him and even following him home. It’s really a unicorn. It sounds preposterous and obviously is but so do all the stories herein when told cold. Yet Beagle carries it off with élan because the characters are so well done and likeable. The similes are so good and the gentle observations so apt.
‘Julie’s Unicorn’ is again based on a completely daft premise. The beast comes out of a tapestry hanging on the wall of a museum, bought to life by some witchery Julie learned from her granny. It’s only as big as a kitten because that’s how big it was in the picture. Various events ensue, bringing some trouble to Julie and her friend, a loveable old cook. The unicorn, I should add, is not at all nice but they do their best for it anyway.
‘Lila The Werewolf’ is set in New York, as is ‘Rock In The Park’, which is a bit autobiographical, except for the centaurs, I presume. ‘Salt Wine’ makes clever use of mermen, for if there are mermaids there must surely be mermen, too. A sailor gets the recipe for the title drink and makes a fortune. Obviously, there are complications. That one’s set in the past, as is ‘The Tale Of Junko And Sayuri’, which takes place in old Japan. A nice, easy-going hunter, comfortable with his low station in life, gets a wife who can change into animals at will. Trouble ensues.
‘The Vanishing’ is a grim tale about a man who used to be a guard on the Berlin Wall before it came down. While waiting for his pregnant daughter at a hospital, he goes into a kind of coma and finds himself back on the Wall in a strange limbo world surrounded by darkness. He encounters some other people and slowly discovers that they are all there for a purpose. It was absolutely gripping and a strong contender for the best one in the book, except that nearly all of them are strong contenders, damn it!
‘We Never Talk About My Brother’ uses chatty first person narration with the protagonist, Jacob, talking to a reporter here about his brother Esau, a big name television reporter famed throughout the USA with a hidden secret to his success. Another great story. ‘The Rabbi‘s Hobby’ was in a more minor key but the sentiment was delicately handled and it left you feeling good.
Many of the stories and, perhaps the best ones, are set in fantasy realms. In these fairy tales, even more than in the others, Beagle achieves the gentle rhythm of an old-fashioned storyteller, unhurried, mildly amused, sometimes sardonic and always interesting. ‘The Last Song Of Sirit Bayar’ features a ballad singer who drinks and a big ugly girl who has underage sex, not with him. The narrative technique is her telling the story to a scribe who writes it down, which is clever. As usual, the characters insinuate themselves into your soul and, as it moves toward the fabulous ending, the heart of the reader is well nigh split in twain with the pain and the beauty of it all.
‘Giant Bones’ is narrated by a garrulous farmer telling his son a bed-time story about how their great-great-great-grandfather came over the mountains to the flat lands they now inhabit and started the family. It starts slow, as they all do, and a reader wonders if it’s worth persisting with this verbose old fool. It is, as usual. The story turns out not to be the kind of story you thought it was going to be at the start. ‘What Tune The Enchantress Plays’ has a pair of star-crossed lovers and the lady must decide between her proper destiny and her true love for a boy.
Beagle gives away the secret of his writing in the introduction. He starts a story without the least idea of how it’s going to end and often does several drafts to get it right and several can mean a dozen. That explains, perhaps, why the plots are unpredictable and also explains why the writing is elegant. Many of these are not short stories but novellas, longer because they need to be, for part of Beagle’s method is to get you to know and understand the characters so you care when the plot does bad things to them.
The method works. It all works. A reviewer runs out of superlatives. This is the best collection of stories I have ever read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
(pub: Subterranean Press. 452 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-291-7)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com
released: 28 February 2009