Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: "The Innkeeper's Song" by Peter S. Beagle

"There came three ladies at sundown," as the old song goes, searching for the wizard to whom each owes her life. Dashing Lal fears nothing and needs no one, but her oldest and only friend has summoned her with visions begging her help. Nyateneri arrives with a soldier’s stride and a trio of assassins on her own trail, but she too has heard the call and come to rescue him. As for Lukassa, well--she was dead a very short while ago, and remembers nothing but the wizard’s spell that raised her, like a turnip from a garden.

In a barren country far from home, the three race to rescue their master from his own renegade apprentice. But the secrets they keep from one another could break their fragile alliance. It adds up to a whirlwind of magic and secrecy, and a world of trouble for Karsh the innkeeper, who rues the day they ever darkened his door.

  3.5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)

 Over the summer, I reread The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, with a mind to review it. Taken at face value, it's an enchanting, very well-written story. The deeper I delved into it, though, the more details jumped out at me to tell an entirely different story on a more metaphysical level. Slowly, my drafted review began to resemble something more like a doctoral thesis. There was too much to say. I had flagged an important quote on every page.

Eventually, I shelved the project. Someday I'll finish my thesis on The Last Unicorn, but there are a lot of books to read in the meantime.

Still following the trail of Mr. Beagle, I picked up The Innkeeper's Song (apparently Beagle's favorite among his own books.) I had read it a few years ago, but I couldn't remember what my opinion of it had been.

Having now revisited the book, my feelings are still muddled.
"Go home," I said. "Life is back that way, not where we are going." 
But she cried that one road was as foreign to her as the other, that in a world of strangers she knew only death and me.
I love the off-kilter fantastical world of The Innkeeper’s Song, a few degrees removed from the standard fantasy faux-medieval Europe. I love the three heroines, the old wizard, and sour Karsh the innkeeper, so adamant that he has never been a good man and will never be a hero. I love Beagle's use of shifting perspective to give each narrator his or her own distinct voice, and often a very different interpretation of events. I love the slow revelation of the plot, like a painting on the artist's easel whose subject matter suddenly becomes beautiful and clear.

And yet, something about the book just does not hold together the way that I want it to. The mortar is missing between the bricks, so they grate together, and the wall... teeters.

It’s tricky for me to write this review as a reader, because--as sometimes happens--I have the urge to review it like I would a peer crit in a writing class. In a weird way, it reminds me of some stories I’ve handed in for such classes--which is not to say that Beagle and I are on the same skill level, HA HA HA. But I remember writing certain stories that were just out of my reach, just past my ability to put into words. That’s how The Innkeeper’s Song feels to me. As if Beagle knew what idea he wanted to convey, but never quite found the right words to hammer it home. So he dances around the point, and the connections between characters and plot points aren’t as crystal-sharp as they need to be (there I go, critiquing it rather than reviewing), and the weight of the story somehow falls wrong.

It reminds me of Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake, the last of the Gormenghast trilogy.  It has beautiful moments and magnificent lines, but it’s like a smashed mirror, not quite enough to tell a whole picture. (In that case, since Peake died before finishing it, what we read really ARE just shards and sketches; the book has a conclusion but is nevertheless unfinished, only hinting at what it could have been.)
"You’ve been a kind of God to me. A rough-hewn God. I hated you at times, but mostly I loved you."
 Or--if you’d like a more modern comparison, dear reader--it reminds me of certain novels by C.J. Cherryh that just get fuzzy and indistinct at crucial moments. Or of how Robin McKinley ends JUST ABOUT EVERY FANTASY with a showdown that consists of (1) the heroine confronting the villain… (2) vague confusing magic heart stuff exploding... and (3) the villain vanishing from existence. [See: The Hero & The Crown, The Blue Sword, Sunshine, Rose Daughter, Spindle’s End…]

Those last two might be particularly relevant comparisons, because both of them--like The Innkeeper’s Song--hinge on world-rupturing magic. Maybe that kind of magic is something that
authors can’t really put into words, because of its nature.

And yet!

My greatest hesitation about the book is its hesitation with itself. I still enjoy it, but it doesn’t hold the same ringing profound glory to me as Beagle's other tales.

Enough on that note. I was excited to revisit The Innkeeper’s Song, because it was the first fantasy book I’d ever read that included a trans* character. (I won’t tell you which one, dear reader. You can read it yourself and then debate me as to whether the character IS trans* if you like.) That said, as much as I like this particular character, I am also rather uncomfortable about how the plotline surrounding the character’s identity unfolds, because it results in a massive violation of another character's consent--someone already shown to have been previously abused. I am not so much on board with Beagle's decisions there, and it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.

 The book also falls into the trap which killed Tigana (and countless other stories) for me: that of the bland young male viewpoint character. Try as I might, I don’t see the need for either of the two young gents in the story, especially given how similar the two of them are. Karsh the innkeeper, on the other hand, is perhaps the most unexpectedly compelling character I’ve ever come across. But as the story is told through several different viewpoints—often overlapping and re-evaluating the same scenes—the reader does get to shift lenses in a refreshing way.

Since I will never get to read an edited version of The Innkeeper's Song, I'll have to go ahead and give it a my recommendation to fantasy readers who like something a little off the beaten path.
Even with its flaws of execution, it never failed to catch my interest and my wish to know more.

If nothing else, it's worth picking this book up for two of the main characters, Lal and Nyateneri.  I think I remember a story about Lal (Lalkhamsin-khamsolal, Lal-Alone, Lal-After-Dark, Sailor Lal) in an anthology; I’ll have to find it and reread it with the memories of her world fresher in my mind.
I also just discovered that Beagle wrote Giant Bones, an anthology of stories from the same world as The Innkeeper's Song (including one about Soukyan!) which I really must lay my hands on now. Beagle is a champion wordsmith, and I look forward to reading another of his tales.

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