Year’s Best Short Review 1 – Peter S. Beagle’s “Salt Wine”

There are any number of new short fiction outlets out there. They appear, and disappear, so quickly that it is almost impossible for a dedicated reader with specialist knowledge to keep track of them all, never mind someone who is more casual about it.Following the lead of Cemetery Dance, several small presses have launched their own magazines, either to promote their authors or to simply celebrate great short fiction. While Peter Crowther’s Postscripts is possibly the best of these, there has been some impressive work in Bill Schafer’s Subterranean and in Fantasy Magazine.

Edited by Sean Wallace, the energetic force behind Prime Books, Fantasy Magazine debuted in November 2005 with an issue that featured good short fantasies by Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Holly Phillips, and others. While the first issues understandably depended on many of the writers that Wallace publishes through Prime, he has begun to cast his net wider. The most interesting example of this is “Salt Wine”, a good new novelette by Peter S. Beagle that is set to appear in the third issue of Fantasy Magazine.

The fate of Ben Hazeltine and Henry Lee, two Welsh seamen seems intertwined from their earliest days at sea. Shipping out of Cardiff together, their paths cross on one or other dubious trading vessel or other over the years, sometimes working closely together, and sometimes not seeing one another for extended periods. But when they are both stranded on the Isle of Pines, just off Cuba, left to live off the land until some passing ship’s captain decides to offer one or other of them a berth, their fates become inextricably intertwined. While looking for a suitable breakfast one morning, Lee spots a merrow (or ‘merman’) trapped by a tiger shark in shallow waters near a reef. Without thinking, Lee charges in and rescues the merrow who is bound to give Lee his greatest treasure as reward. This turns out to be the recipe for salt wine, a rare and surprisingly tasty drink that Lee decides to go into business to manufacture, and he wants Hazeltine to help him market it.

Any story has more to it than simply that, though. The story is related by Hazeltine, long after events have passed and sometime after Lee has died. From the outset its clear that this is a story that will combine mild magics with powerful emotion, in what is a rather beautiful romantic fantasy.

Peter Beagle hasn’t been the most prolific of writers, only producing a couple collections worth of short stories in addition to his more celebrated novels, but over the last year or two he has published a couple of lovely pieces like the novelettes “Two Hearts” and “Quarry”. “Salt Wine” is not quite as strong as either of those stories. I couldn’t escape the feeling that Beagle was struggling a little to hold the voice of the story – it’s all related in the first person by Hazeltine – but his storytelling skills are too strong to produce anything other than a rewarding tale.

And if this isn’t the story of the year, it does underscore that Fantasy Magazine is a magazine that is worth checking out. After just three issues, it’s very much still establishing it’s own voice, but is already featuring some excellent fiction. I look forward to the coming issues with real interest.

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