Peter Beagle’s The Way Home Is a Reminder That He’s Always Been One of Fantasy’s Greats

Books Reviews Peter Beagle
Peter Beagle’s The Way Home Is a Reminder That He’s Always Been One of Fantasy’s Greats

Sometimes impossible things just happen, and we call them miracles. That quote may come from the iconic science fiction series Doctor Who, but it’s applicable in a truly surprising amount of situations in the real world. And for readers (like me), who’ve been fans of iconic fantasy author Peter Beagle for the better part of our lifetimes, the idea that he might one day return to the world of his beloved classic The Last Unicorn seemed like the sweetest sort of pipe dream. Except it’s true. An impossible thing has happened, and it is, in fact, a miracle. 

The Last Unicorn, for those who don’t know, or who are perhaps only familiar with the excellent animated film from 1982, is a novel that’s full of striking imagery and complex thematic contradictions. In simplest terms, it is the story of a unicorn who learns she is the last of her kind and sets off on a journey to find out what happened to her missing sisters. It is, of course, ultimately much more than that. A fairytale that doesn’t necessarily believe in the saccharine platitudes that so often permeate its genre or the happily ever afters that imply our stories ever have something as definitive as a stopping point, it is a strange, jagged, oftentimes uncomfortable tale that is perfect in all its delicate strangeness. (Not to mention beautifully written.) 

The Way Home takes us back to the unicorn’s world by way of a pair of novellas which both deal with similar characters and themes. The first, “Two Hearts,” was originally published in 2005, and won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 2007. It was released over thirty-five years after the original and serves as something of a coda to Beagle’s novel. (It was ultimately included in Beagle’s collection of short stories called The Line Between, as well as a deluxe edition of The Last Unicorn a few years later. Don’t judge me for how many copies of this I have, ok?? The second story, titled “Sooz,” has never before been published, and returns to the story of its eponymous lead character, who first appeared in “Two Hearts”. 

Like much of Beagle’s work, these two stories touch on themes he’s always seemed to find fascinating as an author: The inevitability of death, the sweetly sharp sting of regret, the way that evil doesn’t always look the way we expect, that love is a gift, no what form it may come in. That nothing lasts forever, but that nothing is ever truly gone, either. That happy endings cannot come in the middle of your story. 

The inclusion of “Two Hearts” in this edition almost certainly means that more eyeballs will finally find this story, which I suspect many readers may never have known existed until right now. And it is a tale that is both incredibly simple and painfully bittersweet. In it, a young girl named Sooz is determined to save her village from a vicious griffin and sets off to ask the king for help. Along the way she meets a pair of strangers who turn out to be Molly Grue and Schemendrick the Magician from The Last Unicorn, and Sooz’s own journey of self-discovery becomes the vehicle by which we learn what’s been happening in this universe since last we saw it. (And as someone who imprinted on Molly Grue from a very young age, realizing we’ve both gotten older together is certainly a punch in the gut!)  

Though multiple cameos and references to various elements of the original novel appear throughout “Two Hearts,” its follow-up, “Sooz,” is less directly connected to the unicorn and her story, though it definitely has the same melancholic, bittersweet feel. Taking place nearly a decade later, the young girl from “Two Hearts” is now (mostly) all grown up, and about to set off on a very different kind of adventure to find the sister she never knew she had. Taken away to the realm of the Fae—or the Dreamies, as they’re known here—when she was just a small child, Sooz is determined to find her and bring her home. After all, she’s already managed one impossible journey. What’s another one?

The writing in “Sooz” is particularly lush and lyrical, with beautiful and desolate descriptions of the world of the Dreamies and the simultaneously magical and terrible things that happen there. One of the best things about Beagle’s fantasy worlds is how incredibly unsentimental they are—those desperate for clear-cut happy endings will not find happiness here. Yes. the unicorn’s world is one in which magic exists and where creatures of legend are real, but that doesn’t mean life is any easier for the people who have to live there. Sooz suffers pain and tragedy on her journey to find her sibling. She despairs, she loses sight of herself, and she questions her purpose. But she also finds strength, joy, and unexpected love and care along the way. These are, in the end, the difficult truths of life. And they are what makes it worth living. 

The Way Home is available now

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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