Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is such a talented writer that you could easily pick up any of his recent collections and it'll keep you up all night. What sets Sleight of Hand apart from his other books, however, are two things: 1) There's something apropos with what the title implies—magic and the sense of wonder that goes along with it. Most of the stories fall under that category and it's a convenient framework for these stories. 2) While Beagle is able to work with any genre, there's a certain set of stories which you associate with him. Sleight of Hand includes those that break that mold, and provides a glimpse of Beagle's continuing evolution as a short fiction writer.

When it comes to short story collections, it's not just the stand-out stories that I'm interested in. I'm looking for consistency, or failing that, the versatility of the author. Beagle doesn't disappoint and pulls off what few writers actually manage to do, retaining both qualities in addition to delivering a memorable, resonant story. In fact, perhaps the only "disappointment" of all the stories is "The Best Worst Monster"—and I use the term disappointment not because the story is bad or even competent, but because it feels out of place with its tone and length, at least in comparison to the other, much more engaging stories in the book. At his best, Beagle knows how to tug at the reader's emotional strings, and you can't help but shed a tear by the time you finish "The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon," "Sleight of Hand," and "The Rabbi's Hobby." But being a familiar Beagle reader, what excites me are the stories which don't seem like stories he would have written, yet impresses nonetheless. There's "The Bridge Partner" which arguably isn't speculative fiction, yet there's the sensibilities of the fantastic—and the horrific. What's unappealing about "Dirae" when I first read it in Warriors is that it lacks the sense of wonder that I expect from Beagle, but that's not necessarily a bad thing: this is a different kind of story involving a different kind of metamorphosis and resolution. And then there's "Vanishing" which deals with a subject matter I never thought Beagle would explore, yet fits perfectly with the kind of fiction he's known for, excelling in characterization and emotional resonance.

In many ways, it's difficult to write a review of Beagle's collections because it's all too easy to end up with nothing but praises. There are thirteen stories in Sleight of Hand for example and they're all remarkable stories—caveats explained above—and this isn't an anomaly but the norm for him. So if you've missed out on Beagle's relatively new fiction, I unreservedly recommend you grab a copy of this book immediately.

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