Peter Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song is not a new book. Far from it. It was initially published in 1993. I read it years ago and it has remained one of my favorite fantasy novels.
When my turn arrived to suggest a book for my fantasy reading group (a weighty responsibility) I considered and sorted through twenty-odd novels before settling, not without great trepidation, on The Innkeeper’s Song.
The problem with suggesting a favorite novel read in the past is that they often fail to measure up to your initial impression. Few novels that I read ten years ago or more retain the same charm they had upon their initial reading. We all grow more critical - more jaded in some ways - as we age.
Thankfully, this was not the issue with this novel. In fact, I found that it had grown upon me since my last reading. Beagle is a masterful stylist. I’d recently rediscovered much of Beagle’s short fiction due to an anthology titled Mirror Kingdoms released last year by Subterranean Press. So the high quality of the writing was no surprise to me. Full of wonderful, unexpected metaphors and a subtlety that relies upon the intelligent reader to make connections.
- Lilies, corpses, ghosts – if these are white, then there must be another word for that woman’s skin. It seemed to me, gaping in the road, that her color was the color of something inside her, some bright, fierce life thumping and burning away with no thought at all for her body, no care or pity for it at all.
His narrative style jumps from character to character, allowing us to see each individual chapter from a different character's viewpoint – a style that George RR Martin adopts in his Song of Ice & Fire series of books. Some points-of-view work better than others. The Fox – a shapeshifter – is marvelous throughout, one of my favorite characters in all of fantasy literature.
- Pigeons. Lift up my nose, no ceiling, no rafters between us. Close my eyes and see rumblysoft pigeon dark, juicy wing-beats filling the air with dust and grain, fluffy little under-feathers drift down. Much talking, much shifty-shuffly on their nests, restless with me. Close their pretty eyes like drops of blood, they see me, too.
The plot is not as strong as the prose itself. There is one long stretch of subplot involving two characters that is entirely unnecessary to the novel as a whole, other than to buy time and create some sort of quest adventure. It reminds me of a similar piece of unnecessary subplot in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.
Some characters – most notably Tikat – come across a bit flat, or at least fail to entirely capture the reader’s imagination. Tikat is the first character we meet in the novel and it is assumed that he will be the primary protagonist. That is not the case. He is the least fleshed-out of the characters and the reader never really identifies with his motivation.
All that said, the novel overcomes its shortcomings so incredibly well because of Beagle’s skill with language. Chapters are given in first-person POV. Beagle flows effortlessly in and out of stream-of-consciousness. This gives the narrative a breathless, headlong speed – like a train rolling downhill – when it’s needed. In places, a fierce musicality. At other times the tone is slower, more reflective.
There were a number of instances I found myself - alone in my reading chair - whispering the words aloud to myself as if I were chanting a song. The song of the Fox, of the stable-boy Rosseth who is so charmingly and realistically drawn. The song of Lal-Alone, of Nyateneri and the Man Who Laughs. The innkeeper's song. My own.
I was asked several times during the course of the group discussion why I’d chosen that particular book. My answer was simple. Some books you love because they’re wonderful, magical, exciting, poetic, even all of the above. Some books you simply wish you’d written. This is one of those, for me.