Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Folk of the Air

Peter S. Beagle
Completed 11/22/2021, Reviewed 11/22/2021
3 stars

This was Beagle’s first novel after “The Last Unicorn”.  Written nearly twenty years later, it is more urban fantasy than pure fantasy.  It explores what he calls the League for Archaic Pleasures, which is nothing more than a thinly veiled Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA), and throws some magic into it.  I liked the basic plot and the prose, but I thought the pacing was way too slow.  It suffers from too many descriptions of the different activities and inner workings of the LAP.  On the other hand, it is quite the world-building, describing the LAP and imbuing it with gods and magic.  This book won the Mythopoeic Award in 1987.

Joe Farrell is a musician, traveling the country and the world going from job to job, never settling down.  He currently plays a beautiful lute.  He comes back to Avicenna (a thinly disguised Berkeley) and pops in on his old roommate Ben.  Ben’s lover is Sia, an older woman who has the feel of being more than she seems.  Farrell stays with them for a while.  He also connects with his old girlfriend Julie who introduces him to the LAP.  He reluctantly gets involved, joining the little music band, and wowing everyone with his lute playing.  One night, he comes across a fifteen-year-old in the woods near the LAP gathering conjuring something.  It’s not a demon, but someone named Nicholas Bonner.  Bonner turns out to be more dangerous than she bargained for.  Soon Farrell, Julie, and Ben become involved with trying to keep Bonner from destroying the LAP, a god, and possibly more.

The best part of this book is the LAP, or for all intents and purposes, the SCA.  Even though the descriptions of the activities are way to long and detailed, it’s pretty interesting.  The events, the music, the costumes, the dancing, the battles, the training, the hierarchy, all go into the creation of quite the setting.  Farrell is at first pretty cynical about it all, angering Julie who not only makes her own costumes but has made her own chain mail armor.  But then Farrell buys into it, particularly as an outlet for playing his lute.  It gets even more interesting when Aiffe, the fifteen-year-old, conjures Bonner.  Aiffe is basically a wizard gone amok.  She has the maturity of a kid, but the powers of an adult, and Bonner feeds into both for her, making her his dangerous pawn.  

I was also impressed with the diversity of the characters, especially for the mid-80s.  Julie is Asian American.  There are several African American participants in the LAP, one of whom, who goes by the name of Hamid, is an important secondary character.  And the women aren’t just arm candy for the men.  Julie is a self-determined, self-sufficient person.  Sia is a plus-sized older woman in a relationship with the middle-aged Ben.  And Aiffe, with Thomas, are the baddies.  

While I identified with many of the characters (being a Renfest and Sci Fi convention nerd), I never felt deep empathy with any of them.  I liked the characters, I thought they were three-dimensional, but I think the pacing got in the way of this too.  I just wanted the story to move.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s decent, it’s just not up to Unicorn or In Calabria.  I think people who are more into SCA and role playing than I may find this much more engrossing.  Beagle has another Mythopoeic winning novel, Tamsin, which I’ll probably be reading in December.  It’s a later book like Calabria, so I’m hoping it’s a better told tale than this was. 

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