Peter S. Beagle has long been one of my favorite authors. It is not that I love everything he writes as much as I adore his word-smithing and his ability to evoke emotion. His strength, in other words, is not consistently in plotting. I love his short stories, and the novel Folk of the Air remains my first–and possibly favorite–experience with urban fantasy (1986–take that, Ms. Anita Blake!). When reading Summerlong, I heard echoes from Folk of the Air, and of the two, I wholeheartedly prefer Folk. It’s funny though, because in many ways it feels similar, with Summerlong representing the perspective of a much older author. It is possible I might appreciate it more as I grow even older.
The smile chilled Joanna, not because it was evil or mocking; to the contrary, it was almost heartbreaking in its remoteness, its unhuman attempt at a human signal. It was the moon’s midnight smile, shadows shaping a grimace across endless emptiness.
It should be clear that as always, the emotion of the book is true. Alas that the dialogue doesn’t always follow; Abe the professor and his long-time lover Joanna talk mostly like people at a Renaissance Faire, aping something that seems almost archaic in structure and naked emotion, but completely unsuitable for daily dialogue. Would that we have more true moments like those, however. (See what I mean?) Aside from the tendency to speak like half-baked Shakespeare, the characters feel real and multi-dimensional. I had the sense of each as a relatively complete personality, struggling with hope, deflecting with humor, living with longing. My only hesitation would be what seemed to be a sudden appearance of Joanna’s restless spirit.
“She also understood just as clearly that she had no business on Puget Sound even in the Yandells’ rowboat, let alone in a skin soap-bubble, and that her fancy of drifting silently over bright shadow, in and out of time and dream, leaving no trail, was one of the dangerous ones, the ones that took people with them when they left.
The setting is beautiful with a love for the northwest and the ocean. I loved it, from the rickety staircase by Abe’s house playing picnic table/bathroom for the raccoons to the local diner. Ah, if only Beagle could move it along. It’s one of the reasons he excels at shorter stories/novellas which seem to force him to be more concise. When the waitress Lioness (again with the melodrama) appears, it’s clear she has the spring of magic behind her, but it takes almost a third of the book to move it along to the inevitable. The conflict that eventually develops–or fails to really develop, as in the case of long-married almost-dissatisfaction–between Abe and Joanna feels too developed, where it no longer is about Lioness at all, but about two people, one with both an itch and a grudge. I’d rather the proportions were reversed in this case; a quick exposition and rise to the conflict, and a longer resolution.
“The Market had been Joanna’s private comfort ever since she had arrived in Seattle as a college student. Cocooned by crowds, insulated by noise, she moved easily in her own warm silence, deliciously alone, perfectly content to wander aimlessly between the iron-columned arcades above ground and the subterranean dress and antique stores, nibbling on a Chinese pork bun or a chunk of frybread as she studied the boat traffic…”
Despite the indolent pace, it feels remarkably tense at times with the anguish and indecision of the characters. Its one of the perfect blending of myths for Beagle’s evocative melancholy. It is one of the reasons I both love and fear him as an author, because it is likely I’ll run into feelings I’d rather left undisturbed. Overall, it is an apt and appropriate novel for a man in the autumn of his career, but I confess I much prefer spring.
Many thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for the advance reader copy.