by Peter S. Beagle
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When one thinks of Peter S. Beagle, the first title that comes to mind is probably The Last Unicorn, followed by A Fine and Private Place. In addition to those and other novels, Beagle has written a significant number of short stories, many of which should be as highly regarded and as well known as his longer works. In Mirror Kingdoms, subtitled The Best of Peter S. Beagle, Beagle collects eighteen short stories which have appeared over a period of nearly fifty years, beginning with "Come Lady Death" in 1963 until several stories which were published in 2009. Among these stories is the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning "Two Hearts."
The volume opens with "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros," perhaps fittingly since the rhinoceros in question is quite insistent that he is actually a unicorn, thereby tying into Beagle's most famous work. The story never really goes anywhere, but is almost a slice of life story about the lonely philosophy professor Augustus Gottesman who finds solace and comfort in an invisible rhinoceros who claims to be a unicorn and moves in with the professor to discuss and debate philosophy. This isn't the only unicorn story in the collection, as it is joined by "Julie's Unicorn," and Beagle's writing and characters are comfortable and likeable.
Set during the Georgian period of English history, "Come Lady Death" tells the story of Lady Neville, who has decided that the only person of any importance she has never invited to one of her soirees is Death. While much of the story is taken up with Lady Neville and her friend speculating on who or what Death might be, and figuring that because of their own importance there would be no way Death could pass up the invitation. Beagle provides a variety of viewpoints on Death, from soldiers to poets. In the end, the ball is a success and Death's attendance is not in the manner which might be expected.
"Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel" is a reminiscence of childhood of a grown up David hiding in his Uncle Chaim's art studio. It focuses on the day that one of his uncle's sessions was interrupted by an angel, who was only visible to Chaim and David, reminiscent of the rhinoceros's invisibility in "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros." From that moment on, at the angel's insistence, Chaim only painted the angel, trying to capture its very essence. "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel" is a look at obsession as Chaim keeps trying to get everything just right. Although Chaim claims that he can quit painting the angel at any time, and doesn't actually appear to be obsessed with his depictions of it, David's Aunt Rifke and Chaim's friends see him changing before their eyes and they take action to intercede. Beagle portrays their concern in a realistic manner and Chaim's insistence that it isn't necessary rings true, as well. In the end, the angel is revealed to be a little less, and more, than it claims to be.
Beagle returns to his most famous realm in "Two Hearts," a story set several years after the events in The Last Unicorn. When a Gryphon settles in on a small village, the villagers send to the king for help. Three expeditions of knights gloriously fail to dispatch the creature and so a young girl, Sooz, sets off to find the king and bring him back to deal with the monster. Along the way, Sooz meets up with the wizard Schmendrick and Molly, who help her gain the king's assistance. The story not only has an interesting take on the powers of kings, but also a look at personal responsibility based on ability, no matter the age.
Beagle includes his fairy tale "King Pelles the Sure," the monarch of a infinitesimal kingdom who yearns for the glory that he sees warrior kings attaining. Despite the protestations of his Grand Vizier, who has already seen what war really does, as opposed to the glorification of war that is the stuff of bards and legend, King Pelles insists that they arrange to be invaded by one of their neighbors. In this strangely manufactured war, Beagle's story recalls the 1955 Leonard Wibberly novel The Mouse That Roared, although Beagle's story is much less satirical than Wibberly's tale. After the war begins, King Pelles finds that no matter what his intentions, once the dogs of war have been loosed, they can not be effectively reined in. The tale could have been a trite fairy tale, but the manner in which Beagle teaches Pelles a variety of lessons makes the story a memorable fable.
Beagle travels to Japan for his fable "The Tale of Junko and Sayuri." Born a commoner, Junko is relatively content with his lot in life as the favored huntsman for Lord Kuroda. A chance encounter with a shapeshifter results in Junko finding his life tied to that of someone else and ambition begins to creep into his world. As Junko begins his unprecedented rise through the social ranks, it is clear to him that his new-found wife has a hand, but he elects to remain willfully ignorant, not just of her actions, but of her very nature. Beagles uses the story to look at responsibility and how turning a blind eye can change the person who is benefiting from the actions.
Another story that looks at obsession is "The Rabbi's Hobby." Beagle explores Rabbi Tuvim's obsession with a magazine cover model from a long lost issue of the magazine. Rabbi Tuvim is helped along in his obsession and his quest for answers by twelve-year-old Joseph Malakoff, who would do anything to get out of studying for his bar mitzvah. What Joseph doesn't realize as he procrastinates and helps the rabbi is that he is learning as much from his search for the model, and growing in the process, in much the way his bar mitzvah is meant to help him grow.
Although these are just a sampling of the stories included in Mirror Kingdoms, they do indicate some of the variety of Beagle's writing while also demonstrating themes which run through his stories. Known for his novel The Last Unicorn, Beagle uses unicorns in a variety of ways and so their appearance in "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" or "Julie's Unicorn" is different enough from the world of "Two Hearts" and The Last Unicorn that he is offering something new even when he embraces the familiar. And readers of Mirror Kingdoms will find plenty that is new even when the story seems to take a familiar form.
|Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros||Salt Wine|
|The Last and Only||Two Hearts|
|Come Lady Death||Giant Bones|
|El Regalo||King Pelles the Sure|
|The Last Song of Sirit Byar||The Tale of Junko and Sayuri|
|Lila the Werewolf||The Rock in the Park|
|What Tune the Enchantress Plays||We Never Talk About My Brother|
|Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel||The Rabbi's Hobby|
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