I never cared for The Last Unicorn. It was a fable, it was fantasy. It told a happy story where nothing much comes in the way of generally harming anything else. Not my fare, but after tearing apart most of what the colleague who recommended it to me, I felt like at least giving one of them a shot. And I did. And then I forgot it, which I’m sure is fine for all parties involved.
Flash forward a couple years and now I see that man who wrote a book in 1968 has written a new book, the first in nearly a decade. I read the plot, looked at the page count and said, “Ah, what the hell.”
This book is nothing like The Last Unicorn. Summerlong shows the author’s age in its characters and follows the two late middle-aged protagonists (unmarried but married) living their semi-connected lives before promptly running into a stranger. They take this stranger in and find in time that there is, in fact, something special about this impossibly beautiful woman. *Insert gasp and surprise*. This is not to say that the fantasy advertised on the back of the book shows up immediately, it doesn’t. The first half of the book offers some peculiarities that offer nice curious moments and for a time it seems like it might be trying to flip the coin on A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.
That I would have enjoyed. That is not what happens.
We quickly migrate from character bantering to plot forwarding exchanges of dialogue, which are apparently two entirely different things to Beagle. He does well enough with the former and makes the latter feel like a stilted means of moving the story forward.
The presence of magic grows more frequent, it starts broadcasting its intentions about plot and ultimately trips over itself running to the finish line resulting in a story that feels like a worse, impatient, and above all shorter American Gods operating with the grace of an aged drunk on a bender.
I can’t say I regret reading it. There were some wonderfully well written and human passages. And mixing magic and humanity appropriately is what lets magic feel real, and at first, I hoped that maybe they were pulling off some small simple tale of momentary crisscrossing of worlds. Instead, it goes whole ham mythology and beats you in the face with it either out of fear that the reader is stupid or that we will not properly appreciate how wonderfully delightfully brilliant he is being. I’m hoping it’s the former, but at his age and security in work, he should have been more than comfortable making the reader work for the parallels instead of spelling them out in blood and heartbreak.
“But some, a very come to the gods all on their own They find their way—long and far it is, sometimes—and they wander up to the altars, shy and clumsy and embarrassed and alone, and when they can get the words out, they say, ‘Well. Here I am'” – Peter S. Beagle, Summerlong