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Peter S. Beagle – Sleight of Hand

October 24, 2011

130. Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle (2011)

Length: 288 pages
Genre: Short Stories, Fantasy

Started: 04 October 2011
Finished: 07 October 2011

Where did it come from? From Tachyon Publications for review.
Why do I have it? At least partially Ana’s fault, for gushing about Peter S. Beagle in general if not this book in particular.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 22 September 2011.

Overall Review: Sleight of Hand is a new collection of short stories by master fantasy author Peter S. Beagle. While I’ve read a few of his short stories, in the anthology Songs of Love and Death as well as in podcast form, and I loved the cartoon version of The Last Unicorn when I was a kid, this was my first encounter with a full book’s worth of his writing. The stories in this collection mostly all have to do with themes of family – what someone will give for their family, and what we wind up taking from them. They’re almost all fantasy, but what struck me most about them is that they’re not so much about creating magical worlds and creatures – even though almost half of them do take place in secondary worlds – as using these things to uncover the magic that already exists in our world. Over and over as I read, I got the sense that Beagle wasn’t so much making things up as revealing to me these little slivers of preexisting magic. By-and-large, the stories fall into a kind of natural rhythm of storytelling. This did mean that often I could tell how any given story was going to pan out, and there weren’t any big surprises, but even if some of the paths Beagle takes are familiar, he still managed to to capture them in a way that just felt perfectly right. On the whole, I was enchanted, and will definitely be looking for more of Beagle’s short (and long) fiction. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

“Stories never end. We end. If we could but live long enough, we would see how all tales go on and on past the telling.” -p. 283

Story Summaries:
– “The Rock in the Park” is a story of when Beagle was a boy, and he and his friend run across a family of centaurs who have gotten lost on their migration and wound up in a New York City park. A good way to start off the collection, I absolutely recognized the feeling of that one place in childhood that was yours, that was secret and hidden and where it felt like magic was possible.

– In “Sleight of Hand” a woman who is shattered by the death of her husband and child sets off driving cross-country, in search of nothing, but what she finds is someone very different. I thought this was an interesting twist on the “bargain with Death” story, and one that caught me in the throat with how well it hit its emotional notes.

– “The Children of the Shark God” is an island fable, about the Shark God who mates with a mortal woman, but can only come ashore once a year, and how it is for children to grow up with a father like that. I like the idea for this story, but I felt like it either needed to be more fable-y and folklore-ish, or less; as it was it was sort of halfway there.

– “The Best Worst Monster” is a very short piece involving a Frankenstein-like scientist creating a monster for his own evil purposes, a monster who realizes that he wants more out of life than just destruction. Short and cute.

– “What Tune the Enchantress Plays” is a story of loyalty and love, and the price you have to pay to achieve your heart’s desire. I didn’t find this story quite as compelling as many of the others, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps because it’s one of the few set in a fully secondary world, and the worldbuilding and the plot didn’t quite mesh together the way I wanted them to?

– In “La Lune T’Attend” features a feud between two werewolves that has carried on across a lifetime, and now threatens the next generations. A tad predictable, yes, but told in such a way as to still hold my whole attention.

– “Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers” is, of course, a re-telling of Jack & the Beanstalk from the point of view of a frequently exasperated Mrs. Eunice Giant. This one reminded me a lot of Patricia C. Wrede’s portrayal of the giants in Searching for Dragons, but it was still a lot of fun.

– “The Rabbi’s Hobby” is a story of a young man preparing for his bar mitzvah, and in his attempts to distract his rabbi from Hebrew lessons, they stumble across a decades-old mystery involving old photos that all seem to feature the same mysterious girl. This was one of the ones that was fairly easy to predict, but which seemed just somehow to get it right. Mystery, a little creepy, and a touch of sweetness.

– “Oakland Dragon Blues” involves a disgruntled and displaced dragon who’s blocking traffic, and the hapless policeman who has to deal with him. I love stories about the power of stories, so this one was guaranteed to be a big winner.

– “The Bridge Partner” is more psychological suspense thriller than fantasy, and involves an average woman who catches her new partner in her bridge game mouthing the words “I will kill you.” This was the point at which the collection started getting really dark. This was a little bit out of my typical genre, but it was effectively creepy without being too far-fetched, which is frequently one of my problems with thrillers.

– “Dirae” is a fractured piece involving a warrior who emerges from darkness in order to right wrongs and protect the helpless, only to fade back into forgetfulness once her task is through. This piece takes a while to get into the story – it’s, in some ways, written back-to-front – but once you do it’s well worth it.

– “Vanishing” is a story of a man who wakes up suddenly back at Checkpoint Charlie along the Berlin Wall, isolated in a city that seems to disappear after a block or two… or maybe not so isolated. I think this is one of those stories where there’s a bit of a generational gap; the first major world event of which I remember being aware was the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I think this story may have had more of an emotional impact on people who lived through the Cold War.

– “The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon” is a story of the wizard Schmendrick attempting to help two lost children, and instead learning more than he expected from them about the nature of magic. Another story that’s sweet with just a touch of sadness, and another nice look at the power of stories and the way magic works. Tonally, a very nice way to round out a great collection.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Ficsation
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 115: “Arceneaux had run him to earth in a single day, and it had been almost too easy for Garrigue to lure him into a moonshiner’s riverside shebeen: empty for the occasion and abandoned forever after, haunted by the stories of what was done there to Alexandre Dupleiss.” – a tavern or house where liquor is sold illegally.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2011 7:47 am

    yay! I haven’t read this collection yet, but it makes me very happy to spread the Peter S. Beagle love :D

    • November 15, 2011 9:30 am

      Nymeth – I’ve got We Never Talk About My Brother on my shelf, and now I’m even more excited to get to it!

  2. October 24, 2011 10:54 pm

    I enjoyed reading this. I have a short one right here: I hope you review more of his work!

    • November 15, 2011 9:51 am

      Chris – Thanks for the link; I’ve added it above! I’d definitely love to read more of his work. I’ve got one collection on my shelf already, and a number of his short stories in podcast form, but I’d like to get my hands on The Last Unicorn as well.


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