Peter Beagle, The Folk of the Air (Ballantine Books, 1986)


This novel won the 1987 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award — reason enough for you to go find a copy. Like Greg Bear's Songs of Earth and Power and Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, the central character, Joe Farrell, is a musician. And like those two books, this is a well-written novel with enough twists and turns in the story to keep the reader guessing as to what comes next. (Farrell is a sort of literary alter-ego for Peter. He first appeared in the story "Lila the Werewolf," and most recently in "Julie's Unicorn." In an interview, Peter Beagle noted that "In The Folk of the Air, I allowed Joe Farrell to be the first-rate musician I've always wanted to be. I'm just good enough to know what really good is.")

When our protagonist returns to Avicenna, a thinly disguised version of Berkeley, he finds his best friend Ben living with an unattractive older woman named Sia, who to my thinking bears more than a passing resemblance to the Alison Gross character that Steeleye Span sing about: Alison Gross that lives in yon tower / The ugliest witch in the North Country. All of them — Ben, Sia, and even Julie, the aforementioned former girlfriend — have somehow become mixed up with a group called the League for Archaic Pleasures. This group is obviously based on the well-known Society for Creative Anachronism. Now officially the SCA "is an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating pre-17th-century European history," but the SCA really exists for the purpose of having sword fights, brewing and drinking mead, dressing up in really silly clothing (including armour), and generally acting as if the Middle Ages were a really cool period to live in. It wasn't — think short lives, harsh conditions, various horrible ways to die, and really nasty politics.

But all is not as it seems at the local West Coast medieval role-playing club, or maybe it's too much what it seems. Women dressing up as enchantresses are suddenly casting spells with deadly consequences and summoning really bad things from elsewhere. Men dressed in chain mail suddenly have really bad teeth and speak as if they really are from the Middle Ages — not to mention their new tendency to want to use broadswords in a very deadly manner. Sia, who has powers no mortal can effectively defy, lives in an ancient house that randomly adds rooms that later disappear without notice, a situation akin to that of Robert Heinlein's "...And He Built A Crooked House..." (but that house was supposedly generated with science, not magic). The normally meek Ben has become possessed by a very nasty 9th-century Viking who is going insane as a result of trying to understand the modern world that he's now part of. And a fifteen year-old girl named Aiffie claims she's a witch — a claim substantiated by her summoning of Nicholas Bonner, a demon sent into purgatory nigh unto fifteen hundred years ago!

The basic elements of this novel sound like a bloody cliché, but Peter is too good an author to write anything less than a great book. Faced with all of this, what's a wandering musician to do? Well, if you're Joe Farrell, you find Julie, your old girlfriend, cook a lot of really good food, and serve it to the members of the League for Archaic Pleasures...but you still find yourself in the middle of not terribly pleasant events.

Nicholas Bonner joins forces with Aiffie to unleash some very dangerous magic. Only Sia, who is not what she appears to be, can stop the madness. But she has retreated into a room that literally no longer exists, and Farrell must find her before it's too late. The things that are revealed in the book lead inescapably to an ending that, as in The Last Unicorn, solves nothing at all but is nevertheless satisfactory.

The Folk of the Air is, sadly, out of print as of this writing. Peter has announced that he will eventually release a thoroughly revised and expanded version under the name Avicenna, but until that day comes, you should hunt down The Folk of the Air on the ABE and slowly savour your copy when it arrives in the post. In its own way, it's as good as Charles de Lint's Jack of Kinrowan or Emma Bull's War for the Oaks.

[Jack Merry]

illustration by unknown artist, from interior artwork for the German 1988 hardcover edition of The Folk of the Air

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