Peter S. Beagle, The Line Between (Tachyon Publications, 2006)
I must confess that I lose track rather easily of when a book or collection that I am reading is being published, as much of what I read is in the form of drafts (such as Peter Beagle's upcoming Summerlong novel), or manuscripts that are years from publication (as was the situation with several of Kage Baker's Company novels), or else ARCs like this one, of Beagle's latest story collection. ARCs usually come out three months or so before actual publication, which is rather fortunate for you: The Line Between should be available on-line or from your favorite local bookstore by the time you read this review. If it isn't, stop by my office at the Green Man and you can borrow this copy to read!
Short story collections from PSB are a rare treat indeed. There have only been two others, both published nearly a decade ago: The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances (Tachyon Publications, 1997), which combined short fiction and nonfiction essays; and Giant Bones (ROC, 1997), which offered a collection of tales set in the universe of The Innkeeper's Song. (Viking's The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle omnibus, way back in 1978, doesn't quite meet the criteria: two of the four pieces in it were complete novels.)
The new collection prominently features "Two Hearts," the eagerly awaited follow-up to The Last Unicorn. According to Connor Cochran, Peter's business manager, the story is a bridge between The Last Unicorn and an unnamed LU-sequel that PSB is now working on. LikeThe Folk of The Air, where reading "Farrell and Lila the Werewolf" first did not add (for me) to the story, you can read and enjoy "Two Hearts" without having previously read The Last Unicorn. But it will definitely mean more if you've either read the novel or listened to the audiobook recording which is narrated by PSB himself. (By the way, do go read "Farrell and Lila the Werewolf," which you can find in The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche or The Fantasy Worlds of Peter S. Beagle. It's possibly the oddest love story ever told! Of course, it goes without saying that you'll want to read everything PSB has written. He's that good.)
Unlike many collections that simply reprint material originally published elsewhere, The Line Between offers two stories that are appearing in print for the first time: "Four Fables" and "El Regalo." It also includes "Salt Wine," a tale that shares certain aspects with Patricia McKillip's novel Something Rich and Strange. I mention McKillip because PSB's use of language is every bit as mythopoetical as her's. As I said in my review of McKillip's Harrowing the Dragon collection, "Do any of you remember The Storyteller series? It was where a storyteller — one played by John Hurt, one by Michael Gambon — introduced and narrated tales of greedy princes, misguided giants, and changelings, to name but a little of what stories were told in that wonderful series. Well, Harrowing the Dragon has tales every bit as good as The Storyteller series." PSB's writings are in the same vein: storytelling at its very best, about odd but likable characters tossed into situations where reality takes a serious pratfall. He is similar in subject matter to Neil Gaiman, but with a lighter, defter hand. This is particularly obvious in his Summerlong novel, where PSB plays with the same kind of ideas that Gaiman explored in Anansi Boys. I've no doubt that Gaiman is a very good writer, but Beagle is better at keeping a story feeling fresh.
Reincarnated lovers, dead critics, an ambitious mouse, implacable assassins, kings that Lear himself could sympathize with, and sailors who discover that good luck might be quite a bit worse than no luck at all — there's many a story here to entertain you! My favorite? "Salt Wine," I think...no, possibly "Two Hearts"...or could it be that one that...well, like the McKillip collection Harrowing the Dragon, everything here is quite wonderful. You will certainly discover your own favorites in The Line Between.
illustration from Ann Monn's cover concept for 2006 Tachyon trade pb of The Line Between
Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: