Beagle's least-esteemed novel does not deserve much of the critical spleen that has been vented in its direction. To be certain, the novel falls down in a variety of ways, and it is not nearly as coherent or simply apprehensible a book as his The Last Unicorn or A Fine and Private Place (not that either of those books is all that facile, either).
Many reviewers savaged The Folk of the Air when it was first published, failing to see what is, or should be, obvious: the novel is a more interesting failure than most conventional successes. I have read many novels, both in and out of the fantasy genre, that cleave more closely to most people's expectations for "a good read," but I almost never feel compelled to reread them. Folk of the Air, on the other hand, is a tattered vade mecum that I want to loan to everyone I know (but dread losing for fear of never being able to return to its more sublime and wrenching characters and scenes).
What is the book about? I'll eschew banal summarization: Folk of the Air is about the joy and the danger of wearing masks and playing roles; about the vital part fantasy itself plays in all our lives; and about the melancholy that accompanies growing older, when the masks begin to crumble, the roles to seem shopworn, and the fantasy to pall.
And yet, Beagle suggests, to cast aside the irrational pleasures of role-play and magic-making is as tragic as clinging too fervently to them. We rightly fear being trapped underneath our disguises, he implies, but need them all the same.
The beauties of loss, of unrecoverable time, of regret, and of the noble, desperate denial of all of the above, permeate the novel. If you ever outgrew an imaginary friend, a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, or a madcap lover, Folk of the Air will resonate with the deep, painful places where you store your most cherished, vanished memories.
Please don't imagine that the novel is lachrymose or gloomy; Joe Farrell is at once hangdog and breezy, and Beagle's inimitable wit leavens the proceedings nicely. Of special note are Farrell's reactions to several of his "stupid" jobs, which must be read to be believed.
The supporting characters, from Ben Kassoy to Julie Tanikawa to poor, deadly Aiffe, are all well-drawn and compelling. And Beagle's language is as superb as ever: an exquisite tapestry of metaphor, precise diction, and wistful irony.
The ending is a dreadful mess, but that didn't stop Neuromancer from being a smash, now did it? (If you feel that you understand it perfectly, please don't mail me your insights. I agree with the sentiment expressed in Beagle's short story "Julie's Unicorn": perfect expression and understanding of an artistic subject can be a terrible prison. I can live with ambiguity.)
Folk of the Air is sadly out of print as of this writing; make it your personal quest to track a copy down. Save your newfound treasure for a beautiful autumn weekend; it's worth waiting until that most lovely and longing of seasons to start your journey to the Avicenna of myth and memory with Farrell and company.