I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
If I had to choose one word to describe Beagle’s writing, I think I’d have to break the rule and use two: melancholy whimsy. He is absolutely brilliant at mingling the lovely and imaginative with the quietly heartbreaking. Before picking up this collection, I had only read two books by him: The Last Unicorn and Summerlong. I thought that The Last Unicorn was achingly lovely, and I completely get why it’s considered such a foundational classic of the fantasy genre and why it is so beloved by some of my favorite authors. Summerlong, on the other hand, fell flat for me, but I’m beginning to think the reason behind that lack of connection was my reading it in the wrong mindset and with impossible expectations. Both are books I plan to revisit, the first to see if my appreciation for it has changed, and the second to find out if reading it at the wrong time could be why I didn’t enjoy it more.
“The whole secret of magic…is that nothing is fixed, nothing is forever; that everything…all of it yearns to be something else.”
Thankfully, my introduction to Beagle’s short fiction landed at just the right time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were some stories I preferred to others, the collection as a whole was very strong, and I don’t think there was a bad selection in the bunch. While I’m not going to break down the review on a story-by-story basis, I am going to briefly mention the ones I enjoyed most.
“And whatever centuries of poems, songs, and iconic representations of the heart may have told you, the heart of a human being is not always, or even that often, a compassionate, comforting, nurturing organ. The human heart disregards everything except what it wants, which is madness. People make jokes about the weakness and selfishness of the flesh, but I will bank on it every time against the heart’s hungers, and I know what I’m saying. The human heart is a killer.”
As expected from an author whose most famous work is about a unicorn, a large percentage of the stories in this collection dealt with unicorns around the world. Besides the unicorn of Western tradition, whose portrayal brought Beagle his fame, we are also presented with the Asian unicorn and the Arab unicorn in this book. The Asian unicorn is mystically spiritual and breathtakingly beautiful and a deliverer of brutal justice. The Karkadann of Arabian myth is ferocious and completely without beauty and empathy; as Beagle states in his introduction, this “unicorn” was clearly inspired by the rhinoceros. Two other stories were actually further backstory on Schmendrick the Magician from The Last Unicorn, and I must admit that these were my least favorite in the collection. I didn’t hate them by any means, but they didn’t grab my attention and keep it firmly gripped for the duration like many of the other stories did.
“The unicorn set me free, can you understand me? Freed me from the world I had always been taught, and always believed, was the only world…”
Now, onto some of my favorites. Beagle does a great job of capturing the tone of an original fairytale in “The Queen Who Could Not Walk” which is my favorite story in the collection. I love the idea of Far Away and Long Ago being its own place. The system though which their monarchy works is very unusual, unlike any other I’ve come across in fiction. And the ending ends up being so heartbreaking and hopeful in the same breath that it moved me to tears. My other favorite was “Music, When Soft Voices Die” which tells of a man whose experiment went too far, and how it impacted himself, his housemates, and his community. I also thoroughly enjoyed “Olfert Dapper’s Day” (which also involves a unicorn); “The Way it Works Out and All,” which introduces the titular Overneath; “The Very Nasty Aquarium” and “Great-Grandmother in the Cellar,” both of which were pleasantly creepy; and “Kaskia,” which was an interesting first encounter via technology. The other stories were perfectly pleasant, as well, which I think demonstrates how solid a writer Beagle truly is.
“Put her in a room with ninety-nine perfect choices and one heartless scoundrel, and she will choose the villain every time.”
The Overneath is a truly lovely collection. It’s etherial and imaginative and wonderfully maudlin, which is a hard balance to strike. Beagle is a powerhouse of classical fantasy, and this collection proves that he’s still very much relevant, and that he still has a lot to say.
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