by Peter S. Beagle
Edited by Jacob Weisman
Cover Artist: Cover Design by Elizabeth Story
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tachyon Publications Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616962692
Date: 07 November 2017 List Price $15.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
There is a distinct pleasure to be found in reading a true master of the craft of writing. You can relax with the knowledge that you are in good hands, and savour the facility with language and character that shines from every page. Reading Peter S. Beagle provides exactly this variety of pleasure, and his newest collection of short fiction, The Overneath, will not disappoint. Beagle is a master of prose and his every sentence delights. In addition, he combines aa shrewd appreciation of character and human nature with a warmth and sympathy that makes even his least impressive characters instantly sympathetic. While best known for the deservedly beloved The Last Unicorn, Beagle has lost none of his skill in the intervening five decades of writing and his work remains one of the jewels of the genre.
Beagle clearly has an affinity for unicorns. As he tells us early on, unicorns occur in the familiar European variety and also in Chinese and Arabic mythology. This collection includes a story devoted to each of the three varieties. First, "The Story of Kao Yu" features the Chinese unicorn or chi-lin. An upright judge, occasionally aided in his verdicts by the chi-lin who can sense lies and invariably slays the liar, falls for a young unrepentant pickpocket. Mirroring the inscrutability of the main character, the story is difficult to interpret, but no less powerful for this ambiguity.
The more violent Karkadann, or Arabic unicorn, features in "My Son Heydari and the Karkadann". This is one of my favorite stories in the collection. The violent and incomprehensible Karkadann are capable of spitting elephants on their horn, but an injured Karkadann finds sympathy from Heydari, who nurses it back to health. What makes the story sing is that it is narrated by the exasperated father of Heydari, who finds Heydari's sympathy as incomprehensible as the Karkadann's unthinking brutality.
Finally, the traditional European unicorn appears in an unconventional setting in "Olfert Dapper's Day". Olfert is a con-man who is forced to flee to the New World--a still sparsely settled America--where he is introduced by an Indian friend to the mysteries of the Unicorn. This is probably my favorite story in the collection, full of gorgeously realized characters and moments of true wonder and grace. There is a reason Beagle returns to stories about unicorns again and again.
We also get two stories that feature one of Beagle's most beloved characters. We see Schmendrick the magician long before he is featured in the events of The Last Unicorn in "The Green-Eyed Boy" and "Schmendrick Alone". I quite liked the view of Schmendrick from his magical teacher Nikos in the former story. It gives us a new perspective on the origins of Schmendrick, and Nikos himself is a nice mix of wisdom and exasperation. "Schmendrick Alone" didn't work as well for me--I enjoyed spending time with the character, but didn't feel I learned much new about him or his world.
There are also many stories that are not at all unicorn-related. Not all are entirely successful. "Music, when soft voices die" takes a sharp turn from steampunk to outright fantasy, and as a result doesn't feel entirely successful as either. "The Way It Works Out and All" is a nice homage to Avram Davidson, but not entirely compelling as a story in its own right. And "The Very Nasty Aquarium" has some very nice moments, but overstays its welcome by perhaps ten pages. Even these failures are enjoyable and well-constructed stories, but they fall short of the high bar set by the other stories in the collection.
Among the remaining stories, I particularly enjoyed "Trinity County CA", which posits a world in which dragons and wyverns are invasive species in California, imported to be raised for use as aphrodisiacs or as guard animals for drug dealers. "Underbridge" is a dark and compelling tale of desperation and obsession, and as an aspiring academic myself the fact that the narrator is a frustrated adjunct professor is icing on the cake. And "The Queen Who Could Not Walk" manages the cadence and feel of a true fairy-tale, married to a psychological acuity that is vintage Beagle.
Overall, this is an excellent collection from an accomplished fantasist operating at the height of his powers. Pull up a chair, open the cover, and relax. You are in good hands.