The Innkeeper’s Song, by Peter S. Beagle (1993) E

Date read: 5.7.10 (or thereabouts)
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

After witnessing the resurrection of his dead love from a riverbed, a village boy sets off in wild pursuit of the cloaked women in whose company she now rides. One is a sailor-swordswoman-storyteller; the other, a soldier-nun on the lam from her convent. Under the roof of one inn in a distant land, all of these stories interweave with those of a varied cast of characters, including a fox who’s not always a fox, a stable-boy dreaming of adventure, and a cantankerous innkeep.

Alas. I’m a Peter Beagle fan to the end, primarily on the basis of The Last Unicorn, but The Innkeeper’s Song was a dud for me. Wondrously imaginative concepts, compelling characters – but only in summary. In execution, the rapid multi-character narration distracts from the action, and while Beagle does an impressive job of differentiating the various voices, I found most of them – and I really hate to say this – unbearably irritating, with “folky” or “lilting” speech patterns that came off as stilted and artificial.

About the same sentiment applied to the plotting. While there are moments of incredible emotional intensity and sublime, twilit weirdness, they were by far outnumbered by the points at which I had to put the book down and say “REALLY? Did that really just happen?” (Also – for one of the most awkward sex scenes I have ever had the displeasure of wincing through – “was it really just described in those terms?”)

Considering my reaction more carefully, it’s not so much that the events in question (most of them) were that outrageous. Rather, the affected narration left me disengaged, fenced outside the story and its characters by a barricade of theatricality. Half the time I felt that I had no idea what the characters were doing, or why – and not in the good, pleasurably mystifying kind of way; I was just left squinting in skepticism/confusion as this massive cast frantically played out acts of obscure significance. Even worse, I didn’t really care, despite all the potentially thrilling setpieces, like a showdown between Nyateneri (the soldier-nun) and a pair of ninjas assassins in the inn’s bathhouse. The only sequence that I wholeheartedly enjoyed was the second-to-last chapter, in which one of the characters undertakes a nightmarishly intense descent into death – as in many of Beagle’s works, mortality is a chief concern of The Innkeeper’s Song.

Unfortunately, the novel’s stagy, borderline sententious quality undercuts the obvious care with which it’s crafted. Under all the bluster, I could still dimly glimpse all of the things that I normally associate with Beagle’s works, the bittersweetness and the playful lyricism and the dusky, mysterious feel. Here, they just left me all the more bummed that I didn’t actually enjoy the book.

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Peter S. Beagle

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