July 18th, 2002

The Thursday Morning "It's A Tube Strike And I Have To Go To Bromley" Review: Folk Of The Air

It's been one of those months where I've been delving into the to-be-read bookcase, looking for something that grabs my attention. Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's the bright sunlight, but it's been difficult to find anything I actually wanted to read. So I just grabbed the first piece of classic fantasy that I reached, thinking that a little brain candy would help make those interminable summer tube journeys go away.

Peter S. Beagle is someone I've always meant to read. Books like The Last Unicorn have regularly stared at me from bookshop shelving, and his appearance at a Liverpool Eastercon a few years back was erudite and entertaining. So I picked up a fugitive from Hay on Wye, a battered copy of Folk Of The Air, and was dragged off to the Bay for one strange ride...

Folk Of The Air appears to be a simple fantasy, of a group of mediaeval recreators (similar to the Society For Creative Anachronism) which meets real magic. But that's only the top level, because what Beagle's really writing about is what it's like to be a god in the modern world. And it's not a happy story, especially when a god's children come back to visit, dragging unsuspecting mortals into their plots and machinations.

Joe Farrell returns to his old college town to spend some time with an old friend. Meeting up with an old on-again-off-again girlfriend he finds himself drawn in to the world of the League for Archaic Pleasures. Wearing mediaeval garb and fighting mock battles is only the surface, and Farrell finds himself drawn to the group's obvious closeness and love for the other. There's a power struggle in the group, and the lute playing Farrell finds he has to take sides in order to protect his friend Ben. And as Joe begins to build a life, full of new friends, he begins to see the magics that are finding their way into the real world. But the battle that's actually brewing is the one no one is expecting, at the end of a road strewn with time-switched Vikings, houses with windows that move around, and school girls who mess with powers they really don't understand...

If you've read Neil Gaiman's Sandman and American Gods you'll enjoy this, as it layers the real and the fantastical, while following an ordinary Joe through his mundane existence. But as the moments of deeper reality blow through his life you know he'll never be the same again. Folk Of The Air is a classic of urban fantasy, one where the place (a thinly disguised Berkeley) is as important as the characters. Beagle's writing is understated, almost prosaic at times, but always full of a love for the story, one that pulls you to the climactic battle of magics as quickly as you can turn the pages.

Another highly recommended. It's no wonder it was a major award winner back in 1987.

Oh, and don't eat at "Thumpers"...
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