Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle
These stories are about family. Whether biological, through friendship, or of creator and creation, they’re all about who and what bind us to each other. Some are more successful than others because when Peter S. Beagle is good, he’s very good.
I pre-ordered this book around Christmas time. For me, a new Beagle book is pretty much a slam-dunk buy. I didn’t realize that it contained a new story about one of my favorite characters: Schmenrick the Magician. It is, of course, the last story in the book. I didn’t skip ahead and I almost didn’t make it!
High and low points:
The first two stories are solid. “Sleight of Hand” is the stand-out of the two, delivering a nice emotional punch. The third story, “Children of the Shark God” is okay, but is not the sort of story Beagle does best. It’s too tell-y, even for a fairy tale, and relies on other origins for its tale. It lacks the better aspects of Beagles narrative voice. Which means that “What Tune the Enchantress Plays,” a similar story set in Beagles Innkeeper world, ends up being way too long and a little tedious. (In comparison Eugie Foster does this sort of story exceedingly well. Maybe I’m a little spoiled.) It was hard getting through “Enchantress,” but I’m glad I did.
The second half of the book is excellent. “Dirae” was an utter surprise. Warrior woman? I rolled my eyes. But the kicker of this story is very well done. “The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon,” the Schmendrick story actually turned out to be my second favorite. I was a little disappointed that this was about Schmendrick’s early days, since Molly Grue is also a favorite of mine. It is a good story though, and when I read The Last Unicorn and “Two Hearts” again, it will be with slightly different eyes.
“The Rabbi’s Hobby” is by far my favorite. The main reason I like it would pretty much spoil it, but it is part of my favorite genre. The story is deftly and chillingly told with Beagle’s gentle voice.
I’ll be rereading certain stories in this anthology. That’s more than I can say for most. Because when Beagle is good, he’s very good.