The Line Between by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon Publications, 2006
One pattern I’ve noticed in the writers I tend to come back to again and again—their “voices” tend to be consistent but their subject matter tends to vary. Sure, writers are people—most of them—and they have interests like anyone else, and those motifs tend to repeat. But with the really good writers, they’re going to repeat in ways that make you forget or even never realize that this is what they’re doing. And the subject matter, at least in broad strokes, is going to range more from A-Z than A-B. You’ll find that range evident in The Line Between.
We start off with “Gordon the Self-Made Cat,” a charming(I know, but it is) fable about a mouse who takes a look at the world and decides that being a mouse in a world full of cats, well, kind of sucks. So he decides to become a cat. How? By going to cat school, of course. Yes, the premise is completely ridiculous, but Beagle will have you buying in to it as long as the story lasts, which is just long enough. And when the ending threatens to land hard on a “be true to your nature” platitude, Beagle does a touch-and-go in a different direction.
Next comes one of Beagle’s best known stories from the early part of his re-emergence as a powerhouse in the fantasy field, “Two Hearts.” I wouldn’t call it a sequel to The Last Unicorn, even though we do get reacquainted with Prince (now King) Lir, Schmendrick the Magician, and the indomitable Molly Grue. It’s more of a coda, from a time when the now aged Lir is called upon to fight a monstrous griffin because he’s the king and, ultimately, the welfare of the kingdom and its people depends on him. Shades of the Celtic kings of legend who, when faced with bad luck or the ill-will of the gods, were personally sacrificed in order to save their kingdoms and their people. There’s a good bit about proper roles and accepting responsibility, but I think it’s really about saying good-bye. Winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards, and it’s hard to think of any story that deserved it more.
“Four Fables”: “The Fable of the Moth,” “The Fable of the Tyrannosaurus Rex,” “The Fable of the Ostrich,” and “The Fable of the Octopus.” These are strictly from Aesop, silly and fun but with a bit of a sting in the tail.
The fables bring us through what I think of as the book’s transition, at least from the explicit fairy-tale section to the contemporary fantasy section, even if the stories that follow next are not all set in the modern world, or even necessarily in this world, but there’s a tone change from the first section of the book. It’s not that now Beagle is being serious when he wasn’t before—he was being serious all along. Now that becomes just a little more obvious.
“El Regalo.” Translation-“The Gift.” A young man named Marvyn is born with magical powers, which means his older sister, Angie, has an even more troublesome younger brother than usual. I mean, how do you keep a lid on a guy who can make garbage bags dance? Though it soon turns out that Angie and Marvyn both have bigger worries. Power like Marvyn has always attracts attention, and that attention is not always friendly. Even so, a big sis is going to look out for her younger brother. Even if he is a pain in the ass.
“Quarry.” This is a story set in the universe of The Innkeeper’s Song, about how Soukyan met his shapeshifting fox companion. It’s also a tight adventure story of escapes from impossible odds and and exploration of the strictures of honor. Or possibly how to escape from the strictures of honor, since it can often be a trap as well as a guiding principle. The story is also a character study. And an illustration of a world-class imagination at play…if “play” is the right word, because the Hunters and the Goro from that universe are two of the scariest sorts of creatures you would never, ever, want to meet.
“Salt Wine.” Two sailors go into the wine business when a merrow gives one of them the secret of making the peculiar beverage of the title. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that the salt wine has a bit of a side-effect, since the real story is how the two different men deal with that knowledge. And how certain prices are too high, even when you think someone else is paying them.
“Mr. Sigerson.” Anyone who reads the introduction will know, even if they somehow manage to miss the clues, that the Mr. Sigerson of the title is really Sherlock Holmes, taking a position as a violinist in the orchestra of an extremely obscure European duchy during some of the time he was absent and presumed dead in England. Naturally, a mystery develops. The character of Mr. Sigerson is presented in contrast to Floresh Takesti, the concertmaster, who becomes a rather reluctant Watson to Sigerson, even though his only real interest is in preserving the struggling orchestra. We see Mr. Sigerson from Takesti’s perspective, and it’s a safe bet that he sees the Great Detective a little differently than he sees himself.
“A Dance For Emilia.” Since the fantastic element to this story doesn’t show up until relatively late, I’m not going to say much about that. What I will say is that Beagle’s world-building is on full display here and in full force. He recreates a specific time and place with great depth. You could say in this instance it is because it is a time and place from his own formative years, but you can’t really say the same thing about, say, the universe of The Innkeeper’s Song or The Last Unicorn, where he does the same thing. You never get the sense that you’re reading about a character in a Peter Beagle story. It’s always about real people, and if they’re only real on the page, they are very real there indeed. The plot, such that it is, involves two people mourning the death of a friend, and what the depth of that unrelenting mourning causes to happen. Anyone who knows their folklore won’t need a spoiler, and anyone who doesn’t…well, you’re not going to get one. It’s not about the fantastic element anyway—the story was a fantasy long before that technicality showed itself.
Fine, you ask, and how can that be so, when the reader can point to no fantastic element in the majority of its pages, and only appearing near the end? Fair enough, but let me ask you a question—do you spend your time during an entire magic trick waiting with mad fascination for the bunny to appear? No, because you know that this is only the end of the trick, not the trick itself. Likewise you don’t need taxonomy to know that Beagle is writing fantasy, you simply need recognition of what’s already there, what’s always there. At heart everything in the world is fantastic, all you have to do is know how to see it. Peter Beagle does, and in The Line Between, he shows it to us.