'It's in the telling, always. It's in the old, old telling,' so declares the author in "Oakland Dragon Blues," one of the stories in Peter S. Beagle's newest collection, Sleight of Hand. Mr Beagle is a master storyteller as evidenced by this gathering of thirteen tales of the fantastic, showcasing a wide range of settings and characters (from centaurs lost in New York to a cop helping a bitterly lost dragon to a very familiar magician before he meets a very familiar unicorn). The range alone already shows Mr Beagle's mastery of his genre, but the way he lets each tale unfold convinces me that he loses none of his genius no matter what he decides to tackle.
My favorites from this collection are "Dirae," Latin for the Furies, a visceral and heartbreaking look at modern monsters; "The Rabbi's Hobby," where a teenage boy and his rabbi work on an obscure mystery on top of studying Jewish law; and the titular "Sleight of Hand," where a bereaved wife and mother enters a bargain to keep Death at bay. Mr Beagle has always been one of those rare writers who can write contemporary fantasy as well as he tackles secondary worlds but this time he brought me to unexpected places. Take "Dirae." According to Mr Beagle, "In structure, language, and specific content, this may be the strangest story I've ever written(p209)." It is certainly darker than his usual tales, and the way he utilizes the tone and voice serves to mold a very unforgettable character born out of that darkness. One of the other stories I enjoyed was "Sleight of Hand." It is emotion-laden but never overwrought or sappy, in spite of how easy it is to let the story ooze with grief. There is real magic in these tales, in this telling, not mere trickery.
Looking back, I realize that I was drawn to the more contemporary tales in this collection, but that doesn't mean that the ones containing more traditional elements of high fantasy are any less effective. Fans of The Last Unicorn will be delighted to see a Schmendrick tale close the book, ending it on a poignantly familiar note. But there are no unicorns here, and the truth is, I don't mind at all. I have grown up loving Mr Beagle's work and with Sleight of Hand, I realize that I may have matured also in how I've come to appreciate his talent.