I was really apprehensive when I picked this one up. Anybody that knows me, and has talked to me about books for more than a minute, knows that The Last Unicorn is one of my all time favourite novels. I love, love, love it. I’ve reread it more than almost anything else and I own it in about every conceivable way it’s possible to own something (natty old paperback, new trade paperback, graphic novel, movie). First day that it’s available in straight to brain download or holodeck program, I’ll be standing in line. And, weirdly enough, I think it might be my undying and forever love of that story that’s caused me to avoid most of the rest of Peter S. Beagle’s stuff up to now.
Case in point: The only other time before this that I’ve read his work was a short story collection I ordered online a few years ago, which I think was called Sleight of Hand. I remember it being good, great even, fun and magical and always well written, but after putting it down I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. The belly warmth and awe and admiration that I always feel after reading The Last Unicorn, (somebody, some human, wrote this) wasn’t there.
At the time I thought that maybe it had something to do with short stories versus long form fiction. He was good at short stories, but maybe his real skill lay in spinning a long yarn. Maybe his particular brand of magic just needed a little more room to breathe. But even with that thought in mind I didn’t actively pursue any of his other long form stuff. I think I have another one of his novels hiding under a stack of books somewhere in my apartment, but I couldn’t tell you what the name of it is. I purchased it on principle in support of my theory, and then promptly shuffled it to the bottom of my reading list and forgot about it and him.
Until this came out. It had been showing up on my Amazon “recommended for you” lists for a few months and I’d been studiously ignoring it. Yes, the reviews were positive. Yes, the story sounded intriguing. Yes, the cover looked great (And don’t even bother writing to me about the “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” nonsense. We all do it. And if you’ve spent as much time in bookshops as I have you know that buying books based on a catchy cover is not, actually, the bad idea everybody makes it out to be). But I kept skipping past it, kept putting it in the “maybe later” pile. I wasn’t really ready to be disappointed by him again.
I’m not sure why I finally bought it, or why when I did I put it at the top of my reading list. Maybe I realized how weird I was being, how dumb it was for me to not support an artist that had made such a huge impact on me, that was capable of such good work. So I bought it and I read it and again, it was good! I mean, it’s Peter S. Beagle. The dude is a beautiful writer, a master of language, and it carried me along well enough, but…*sigh*. As much as I don’t want to, I gotta say I’m a little disappointed in this one too. Let’s try and figure out why.
There’s two possible answers to the question, and I’ll go over both of them. The first is the most obvious, the second probably the closest to the truth.
So the first reason why I find myself here, feeling this way about my boy Beagle yet again, is the work itself. The language that the story was told in was beautiful and engaging, everything you’d expect from this guy, but I had some major issues with the way the story unfolded and the people in it. I found it a little clunky, the hidden plot a little obvious (I think it was probably within the first thirty or forty pages, almost immediately after meeting the “mysterious” Lioness, that I had that “oh, this is going to be the storyline” moment), which in and of itself, is not that big of a deal. This isn’t meant to be a mystery or a thriller, the plot doesn’t hinge on a big twist or reveal. But it is indicative of a certain ham fistedness I felt all throughout. There were so many hints, so many conversations meant to outline exactly what it was that the characters were feeling, how they were viewing the events happening around them, how you were supposed to be viewing them, that I never felt like I could really sink into the story. The characters suffered from that same lack of trust, feeling overexplained and undercooked. Instead of discovering the world for myself, or getting to know the characters over time, I could feel Peter’s hand gripping my wrist and tugging me along, pointing out all the sights he thought I should see. That, mixed with the fact that I think it was a little overlong, going back to points that had already been made to underscore them again and again, left the whole thing feeling a little flat to me, a little magicless.
Now to the second reason, the one that may be a little more fair to the author than the first. I think my expectations for Peter S. Beagle are just too high to be met. The Last Unicorn is such a big deal to me, had such a huge impact on me when I first read it, that I can’t help but think of it as perfect. Somebody could prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was secretly a piece of Neo-Nazi propaganda meant to poison the minds of babies, or like a brainwashing device that was behind everybody putting cilantro in everything all the goddamn time and I would still love it. I don’t compare other authors to it, don’t compare other authors to anything really when I read them, but every time I pick up a new Peter S. Beagle book I just can’t stop myself from looking for that feeling, from weighing every word on the page against a perfect, spotless, unassailable childhood memory. And I know that that’s horribly unfair, to hold him to expectations warped by nostalgia and love. I also know that it has nothing to do with the author and everything to do with me, and yet…here we are. I know all this, and still I’m disappointed.
So would I recommend this book to people? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I can’t tell if it’s good or bad. I have too many feelings wrapped up in it. What I will say is that I don’t think I’ll ever buy another Peter S. Beagle book again, but that I think you probably should. And if you haven’t yet, and I mean, what the fuck guys? Read The Last Unicorn. It’s perfect.