Sometimes a book comes along and you get this pleasant feeling of déjà vu. Not in the sense that you’ve read the book before, per se, but that the book knows you. It’s the feeling of familiar tales; warm tales—the kind of tales told in old world taverns to weary travelers by the fireside.
Peter S. Beagle—author of such fantasy classics as The Last Unicorn—has created a world of such familiar magic in his newest offering, Sleight of Hand. Gloriously simple, and open-mindedly innocent, this 13-story anthology will entice even the most jaded reader to read long hours into the night.
Beagle’s writing revels in the simplicity of childhood wonder. Most of the stories in Sleight of Hand are good on paper, but cannot be given true justice until they are read aloud. Beagle consistently strikes the bittersweet chord between The Brothers Grimm and the lullaby your mother sang you to sleep with. These are stories penned in old world calligraphy: Here there be dragons.
The stories themselves are predictable in the same way that a fairytale is. Of course, there is a happy ending . . . but it’s not necessarily the ending you expect. Which yes, kind of belays the concept of predictability, but that’s beside the point. It’s more of a flavor of familiarity than predictability, and Mr. Beagle uses this familiarity to pull his readers closer, and wrap them in words.
He even uses familiar characters—at least, characters that are familiar to him. The first two stories in the collection seem to feature the same wizard whose claims his most sophisticated trick is pulling fantastic objects out of people’s ears. And in “Oakland Dragon Blues,” we are acquainted with an unfortunate story dragon blocking traffic in the human world.
Standout stories include “The Children of the Shark God,” an imaginative and melancholy take on sea-side folk tales; “The Rabbi’s Hobby,” in which a rabbi is haunted by the image of a beautiful woman who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth; and “The Rock in the Park,” which is a true story (or so Beagle claims) of the author himself and a childhood friend who meet a family of lost centaurs in the park.
Transcending the age boundary, Mr. Beagle has created, not just stories, but living, breathing images for anyone who chooses to open his book. Delighting in the small people and simple sorcery, Sleight of Hand will beguile and enchant, threading together the most disconnected stories with the steady, constant of ordinary magic.