Peter S. Beagle is not exactly fantasy's most prolific talent, and The Folk of the Air feels in a lot of ways like it was a difficult birth. That's exactly what it was, too; Beagle hammered it out over an 18 year period between other work! It's a novel rich in atmosphere and anchored by the weight of centuries, as stylistically removed from The Last Unicorn as Beagle could make it. It can perhaps be interpreted as a parable about the role fantasy itself plays in our lives, specifically in the effort we put forth to act out our dreams as a way of filling the gap between who we are and who we wish we were. It's a little overlong, and drags a bit in the middle. But the overall result is top-drawer, comparable to the best of Tim Powers.
Beagle's protagonist is Joe Farrell, a musician who's frittered away most of his post-collegiate years in boho style wandering the country and avoiding any semblance of settling down and taking on responsibility. He returns at last (driving, naturally, a beat-up VW microbus) to his Bay Area hometown of Avicenna, a fictitious stand-in for Beagle's native Oakland. There's more than a little foreshadowing in the fact his arrival is marked by an episode of violence, as he must fight off a hitchhiker he's picked up who's suddenly decided to go psycho. The event presages the course his life will take over the following months: a tranquil beginning, unexpectedly interrupted by turmoil.
Farrell moves in with an old college buddy, Ben Kassoy, who's living with an older woman, Sia, about whom there is clearly more than meets the eye. As Farrell and Sia meet for the first time, Beagle lends their dialogue a curious undercurrent, hinting at buried secrets, and in so doing establishes the palpable, tense atmosphere that suffuses the story. Avicenna becomes a very real and textured setting, where you can practically feel the summer warmth in your bones.
It's also a town where no one seems satisfied with life itself, and everyone (at least, everyone we meet) seeks escape from their drudgery one way or another. Farrell reconnects with an old girlfriend, Julie, and she introduces him to an SCA-ish group calling themselves the League for Archaic Pleasures (chortle), whose members do the usual thing of dressing up all medievalish and having festivals and banquets and mock battles. The most dedicated — or obsessive — of them even stay in character in the real world, rarely lapsing out of their personas and affected Elizabethan speech. But there's a darker secret underlying the group: the some of its members are the real thing, actual people from a thousand years ago or more, whose minds possess the bodies of the League's modern-day members for brief periods. One of these, Farrell discovers to his horror, is his buddy Ben, who swaps bodies with a 9th century Viking. Behind this witchery is a young girl, calling herself Lady Aiffe, who has mastered real magic skills in her lust for power, but doesn't realize in her juvenile arrogance that she's simply being used by even greater, darker powers she cannot hope to control.
Beagle is a master at character development, and the narrative magic he weaves in making Farrell, Julie, and even their most eccentric friends believable people is so strong, that when the book settles into a conventional good-against-evil fantasy plot it's a bit of a comedown. But only a tiny bit. Overall, the story is nearly as strong as anything Beagle's ever done, thanks mainly to the emotional investment we have in his characters. Even the villainous ones are treated sympathetically. There are a few draggy moments, but it was never a real problem for me that we're nearly halfway through the book before the plot really kicks in. From his debut A Fine & Private Place on, Beagle has been a storyteller who is less concerned with plot than with giving us glimpses into his characters' lives at important transitional moments (including death), and allowing us to observe how they handle themselves, what they learn or fail to learn. When Farrell realizes, finally, that he does in fact have a destiny beyond wandering the globe with his lute, and that fulfilling it will be an ongoing mission, it gives the book a nice lack of a tidy resolution in its summing up that is far more rewarding in its way than the de rigeur boss battle that climaxes the overall narrative.
Beagle has never been fully satisfied with The Folk of the Air, and is currently reported to be working on a revision to be retitled Avicenna. But if you've admired Beagle's other books, I think you'll admire this one too, even in its uneven bits. Fantasy, like any fiction, is at its best when it holds up a mirror to our own desires and insecurities. And Peter S. Beagle's knowing and heartfelt fantasies are among the genre's best.