It’s probably not fair to measure an author’s most recent work by the same standards as an author’s very earliest and (some would argue) best. But then again, it’s certainly not fair that any young author should have written A Fine and Private Place (1960), The Last Unicorn (1968), and I See By My Outfit (1965) so early in his career and in such rapid succession. I think most aspiring writers would agree that writing just one book with the style, grace, and poignant beauty of each of these would be a worthy triumph for a long career—let alone three of such caliber in a row right out of the gate. But that’s Peter S. Beagle, acknowledged master of urban fantasy.
I still consider the triumvirate of Beagle’s early books among the best modern classics of fantasy (though to be fair I See By My Outfit is actually more of a travelogue). I have read The Last Unicorn several times, at least once out loud to my kids, and I’m still proud of having been able to work a quote from the book into a history of astronomy talk I once gave at the Newberry Library in Chicago. I would argue that The Last Unicorn is a nearly perfect book, in which every line flows like poetry, nothing is out of place, and each character becomes an archetype.
Having written something like that, once upon a time, it must be an impossible challenge and yet an irresistible draw to attempt that style again and revisit some of those timeless themes. This is what Beagle endeavors to achieve in Summerlong, his latest fantasy novel. To a large extent he succeeds, despite the fact that superficially at least the setting and content of this work are quite different than those of his early masterpieces. Summerlong has all the beauty of his earlier works, with an additional gravitas of worldly wisdom and even weariness that makes it ache with a bit more sharpness. Indeed, the parallels in theme and style between The Last Unicorn (set in a pleasingly vague secondary world) and Summerlong (set in the environs of Puget Sound) are striking, with each character from the earlier novel reflected and transformed in this new work, especially in the case of the two main protagonists. I’m honestly not sure how much of this was intentional, but much will seem familiar to fans of The Last Unicorn.
The earlier book’s Schmendrick the Magician is now, instead of the last of the Red Hot Swamis, a retired history professor named Abe, living out his years writing on an island in Puget Sound. Molly Grue, instead of traipsing about with Captain Cully and his band of thieves, is a flight attendant named Joanna, and just as world-weary and wise. The relationship between Abe and Joanna—worn, familiar, and comfortable—plays out like I imagine Schmendrick and Molly Grue’s would have after they walked off the pages of The Last Unicorn. The two of them at the start of the novel have been together in an amiable, unwed companionship for over twenty years before they encounter this book’s own, analogical, unicorn.
The stand-in for Amalthea, who in The Last Unicorn was the human form taken by the titular beast, breaks in on the lives of Abe and Joanna as a young runaway named Lioness. It is in Lioness’s character that the parallels with Beagle’s earlier work become even more pronounced. It’s as though Beagle has plucked Amalthea from the pages of The Last Unicorn and placed her here in modern day Washington State. She has the same alien grace, wary innocence, and unconscious magic, and gives Beagle the same opportunities to play with ideas of devotion to a beauty that inspires almost irresistible love and protection.
Lioness is obviously on the run from something as old and inexorable as Amalthea’s Red Bull, and though her presence brings a lingering summer to the island and transformation to the lives of everyone she touches, she is as fragile and ready for flight as a bird (or a unicorn—I mean, seriously, there are a lot of echoes here). It’s not a spoiler, though, to admit that she is not a unicorn, though her plight is the retelling of one of the oldest myths of all, and an astute reader will see what’s coming within the first few chapters: Lioness is, of course, Persephone, on the run from her cold and inexorable (but by no means evil) husband, Hades. There is even a brief appearance from Demeter, during which Joanna experiences an epiphany that is to motherhood what Molly Grue’s first encounter with the unicorn was to lost innocence.
Like Amalthea, Lioness has no real agency in the novel. Her trajectory is without choice and unwavering, a study in the nature of fate as pointless to try to stop as the changing of the seasons. Because in the end, this is no more a story about Lioness than The Last Unicorn was about the last unicorn. Rather, the story exists for the characters, and the archetype of the magical, innocent, otherworldly woman is just the nexus that pull the characters together, draws them along, and ultimately transforms them. Primarily, Summerlong is a love story between Abe and Joanna and an exploration of the way their lives, which had settled into a comfortable disinterest, unexpectedly grow in ways equally dramatic and prosaic after coming in contact with Lioness (Abe, for instance, joins a blues band, and Joanna fulfills a long-time kayaking dream).
And then there’s Lily, Joanna’s gay daughter who presents the novel’s most compelling aspect in a gender-swap analogue for the earlier novel’s noble Prince Lir, who aimed in his turn to court Amalthea. Lily’s devotion to Lioness, and Beagle’s celebration of this, of the idea that pure adoration can bring healing, makes for some of the most compelling developments in his nuanced tale. Lily is a more broken hero than Lir, the creation of an author with almost fifty years’ additional experience of the battles and disappointments of life than the writer who penned Lir. Lir was young and hopeful, waiting to experience love for the first time and to give himself totally to the beloved. Lily has already loved, been abused, and had her love discarded and rejected several times. She comes to Lioness with far more baggage than Lir did to Amalthea, but because of this she’s also more genuine and just as desperate.
Lioness is the center of the novel, but she remains a cipher, and her identity and ultimate fate are secondary, a background against which the characters of Abe, Joanna, and Lily face their own struggles and conflicts, mainly internal. This means Summerlong is a fantasy novel without epic battles; or rather, with battles played out in the passions of old lovers—and ones thus sharper and more painful than those of straightforward epic fantasy. There are no dragons to slay in the manner expected, and the quests carried out are the truly terrifying ones: Joanna alone on the water in a kayak, Abe stepping onto a stage for the first time, relationships ending. In other words, the drama is all primarily on the personal scale.
For all three—Lily, Joanna, and Abe—their involvement with Lioness ends as it must, as human contact with such wild grace and old magic has to, and the readers cannot escape the ultimate (and predictable) narrative arch any more than the characters can. There’s no drama, nothing unexpected, in the final resolution. The tension and the tragedy, which make this book more of a love-story-with-teeth than a straightforward fantasy, take place in the relationships between the characters who are left behind. This was certainly true with The Last Unicorn as well, but the transformation in the characters took place mainly off the page and afterward. We knew Lir would become king. We understood Molly Grue and Schmendrick would have a life—or at least several journeys—together. Here in Summerlong, instead of a hint of new beginnings, we navigate the death of a relationship. Instead of two people drawn together by their encounter with magic, we experience a relationship torn on the teeth of the inexplicable and inhumanly lovely.
It works though, assuming a reader can trust Beagle long enough to invest in these characters without being turned off by the distinct lack of magic or adventure in the first several pages. Beagle still does magic here, but he does it in a manner more poignant than most because the “second world” he constructs in Summerlong—complete with its laws of magic, its kingdoms and its heroes—is our own. That is, he takes us to a completely new place, and we find out to our dismay and chagrin that it is our own backyard. This is urban fantasy (or, more accurately, “American northwestern fantasy”) at its best, where all the power of the magic comes through Beagle’s masterful handling of the real things: the coming of spring, the daggers of passion, the inevitability of departure on a landscape of gorgeously realistic prose.
Sure, Lioness can raise flowers from mere dirt and then make them disappear again, and the characters encounter the darker magic of her jilted husband as well, but in and around all this Beagle is more interested in using brushes with the supernatural to highlight the truer significance of the natural: loons on the water, blues harmonics, and summer rainstorms.
If that sounds trite, it would be in the hands of a lesser writer. Though Beagle’s prose doesn’t catch at your throat in the way it did in The Last Unicorn (which I can’t quote from right now because my copy is buried somewhere in my daughter’s bedroom), what Beagle does much better here is craft real conversations between real people. It’s these conversations, what they say about how people react to the unreal in their lives and what they imply for how relationships grow, flourish, and wither, that will stay with you when the story is concluded.
Stephen holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science and teaches at a liberal arts college in Illinois. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Shimmer, and Daily Science Fiction. His first novel, First Fleet, is a Lovecraftian scifi epic available from Axiomatic Publishing. Find him online at www.stephenreidcase.com.