Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
The Line Between
Peter S. Beagle
Tachyon, 304 pages

The Line Between
Peter S. Beagle
Born in New York in 1939, Peter S. Beagle graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1959. His works include the novels A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn and The Folk of the Air, as well as non-fiction books and the screenplay for the animated film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The Last Unicorn became an animated film in 1982. He lives in Davis, California.

Peter S. Beagle Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Giant Bones
SF Site Review: A Dance For Emilia
SF Site Review: Tamsin
SF Site Review: Giant Bones

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

There may be a fine line between sentiment and sentimentality, but the difference is significant nonetheless. In fiction, at least, the latter is one-dimensional, the author ladling on the sorrow (or whatever emotional strings are being tugged) until there isn't a damp eye in the house. The former recognises that emotions are many-dimensional, doling out sorrow after sorrow and then adding just that touch of joy that brings on the tears. Sentiment may manipulate the reader every bit as much as sentimentality, but in recognising that feelings are complex and multi-layered it does so, at least, with honesty.

Peter Beagle has always eschewed the falseness of sentimentality, while wringing all manner of emotions from his audience. That he does so with such unfailing grace is what has made him one of the finest of modern fantasists. Each one of the stories gathered here is aimed directly at the heart, and whether told in the voice of a sparky girl or an old man burdened by too many memories the tone is always the same. This, it tells us through all the joys and excitements, is the way we experience the sadness of the world. And we nod, because that gentle tone of voice is so convincing, and we feel that if tears are not exactly the appropriate response to this collection, The Line Between, then at least we should be somber, a little more aware of loss.

One of the ways he controls this is through the way he teases but never gives in to our expectations. A perfect example was the way the unicorn, in The Last Unicorn, refused to conform, either in appearance or manner, to the way unicorns have traditionally been presented. Now, more than 30 years later, he has produced a sequel, "Two Hearts," which again offers the traditions of fairy story but refuses to conform to their nature. We are affected by the emotional games played out in this story (if the original novel was, as he says, a young man's work, the sequel belongs to old age, and though it is narrated by a precocious and affecting nine-year-old girl, Sooz, it is a story all about the approach of death), because the mourning of the characters belongs to the grittiness of reality not the solace of faerie.

For an old man, Beagle takes on the voice of young Sooz with élan and conviction, though he repeats the trick just as effectively in the voice of Angie, a young girl with a close but exasperated relationship with a younger brother who is also a male witch, in "El Regalo." The sprightly, spirited storytelling makes this one of the more successful comedies here, though again it has darker undertones involving death and loss.

Although for most fans of Beagle's work, a sequel to The Last Unicorn will be reason enough to buy this collection, it is not actually the best story in here. Better are three other stories about age and loss and death. "Quarry" is another pendant to an earlier novel, in this case The Innkeeper's Song which Beagle more than once affirms is his favourite work. Here we get the back-story of how Soukyan and the shapeshifter met, both finding themselves fleeing from implacable foes. It is a story of mutual need and a very male, unacknowledged friendship which climaxes not in the way they achieve victory but in the way they decide to go on together. Written looking back from age (a perspective Beagle uses several times in this collection), it is excellent at establishing the closeness of the relationship between the two characters; though he does that even more successfully in "A Dance for Emilia." This is the story of the lifelong friendship between a moderately successful actor and a failed dancer in contemporary America. The course of their friendship over the years is traced with such genuine affection that when one of the men dies and is transformed into the person of his aged cat, the flirtation with tweeness is especially infuriating. Fortunately, Beagle pulls back from the brink of sentimentality at the last minute and allows the story to end with a gruff and affecting reality.

There is something stopgap about this collection. "A Dance for Emilia" has already been published as a short book in its own right; in his introductions Beagle lets us know that "El Regalo" will turn into a novel, as will the first story in the book, "Gordon, the Self-Made Cat" an amusing fable about a mouse that goes to cat school. He is so delighted with the voice of Sooz that he admits he will be going on to write the full-length novel sequel to The Last Unicorn, and he is so clearly taken with the world of The Innkeeper's Song that I would be surprised if we did not meet Soukyan and the shapeshifter again. So much of the book, therefore, seems to be marking time for full-length works yet to come, that it is pleasing to report that probably the best story in here is one that stands all on its own.

"Salt Wine" is yet another story to deal with loss and death and growing old. It starts unpromisingly with two ne'er-do-well sailors in a vaguely 19th century setting, when one of them saves a merman confident that "the rules" mean that the merman must now bestow upon him all his treasure. Instead he is given the secret for making salt wine, and the two men soon become rich merchants. So far the story feels very conventional, and the gruff voice of the narrator is the least convincing narrative voice Beagle assumes anywhere in this collection. But there is a secret to salt wine that the two men discover only late in their lives when the wife of one of them starts to turn into a mermaid. Suddenly the whole mood of the piece changes and the second half of the story is one of the most powerful and moving meditations on friendship and loss that you are likely to encounter in any otherwise conventional fantasy. It is this which demonstrates Beagle's ability to substitute the sentiment of genuine emotion for the sentimentality of traditional fantasy.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide