Sleight of Hand is the literary equivalent of opening the drawers of a long-buried but recently discovered Chinese apothecary’s cabinet; one has no idea what one’s going to find from drawer to drawer but what emerges from each is finely crafted, unique, and just a little bit old-fashioned. And while that metaphor may be more drawn out and tortured than anything Beagle puts to paper in the collection, the sense of craftsmanship – of elegantly sculpted miniatures – is the enduring response one has to the book.
The first story, “The Woman Who Married the Man In The Moon”, is set in the same world as Beagle’s best known work, The Last Unicorn, and concerns itself with one of that story’s best-loved characters. Here Schmendrick the Magician takes center stage, wise, sad, and good-hearted in this story set before The Last Unicorn. Here he’s offered a chance at a life that’s always eluded him, and the delicate dance between Schmendrick and his gentle pursuer is quietly moving.
“Sleight of Hand,” the second piece, is also about choices and family, and about how it just might be worth changing everything for the sake of a small kindness. Likewise, “The Children of the Shark God” deals with family and promises and power, as the two titular characters set out in search of their father, who’s more human than any god has a right to be.
“The Best Worst Monster” is one of the more lightweight entries, a gossamer fable of a monster and the petty mad scientist who creates him with a little too much existential curiosity. More serious is “What Tune The Enchantress Plays,” a return to the themes of family and responsibility that permeate the collection. Here, a witch dabbles in her daughter’s love life for what may or may not be the best of reasons, and then must face the consequences.
There’s a different family relationship at play in “La Lune T’Attend”, a werewolf story set in the Louisiana Bayou with a very different tone and sensibility than Beagle’s better known “Lila the Werewolf.” Here, it’s a battle of monsters, one looking to destroy a family, one looking to defend it but unable to do so without revealing his terrible secret to those he’s hidden it from for their entire lives.
“Up the Down Beanstalk” fits more with “Best Worst Monster”; a re-imagining of Jack and the Beanstalk from the point of view of the giant’s garrulous missus. Of course, she is still a giant, and that’s the hook Beagle sets in the story. “The Rock In the Park,” however, is a different kind of faerie tale, closer to a Charles de Lint story than anything else in the collection. Here, everyday items are used to make magic for creatures out of legend who walk into a real-world park. The intersection between wiseacre New York Jewish kids and mythologically formal centaurs gives the story the unique twist it needs to lift out of Neil Simon shtick. “The Rabbi’s Hobby” also tills the soil of Judaism as a hotbed for mystic encounters, albeit not necessarily Jewish-themed ones. Here a diffident bar mitzvah student and the rabbi assigned to drag him across the finish line of his haftorah portion instead get embroiled in a gentle mystery, one that does more to bring the protagonist toward manhood than the ceremony he’s studying for might ever do.
“Oakland Dragon Blues” is another of the jokey trifles. It’s fun, but the conceit – how do you keep a dragon from blocking traffic – is slight. More serious are the next two pieces: “The Bridge Partner,” which takes a slight, glossy suburban setting and tears the cover off the murderous feelings seething underneath, and “Dirae,” a wistful story of vengeful superheroics sans tights, cape, or funny name.
The last piece in the collection brings it full circle. It’s a family story, centered on a man who’s about to become a grandfather, though his relationship with his daughter is rocky at best. He’s also a Cold War veteran who’s suddenly haunted by visions of one moment in his service, watching a young woman trying to make a run across the no-man’s land between East and West Germany. And as the players in that long-gone drama are brought inevitably together by unexplained forces, there are consequences in the here and now as well.
All of these are personal stories, of greater or lesser weight. They may touch on the fantastic, but they’re not fantasy in the traditional quests-and-dark-overlords sense. Occasionally greater themes – the defense of a country’s borders against a demon, a dragon’s sudden appearance – make their way into the pages, but they’re setting, an excuse to set Beagle’s very human dramas in motion. There’s quiet power here, and delicate craftsmanship, and most of all, a genuine emotional response that few short story collections can generate.