Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story by Peter S. Beagle
I’m rarely tempted to repeat an introduction to one of these reviews but, on this occasion, I think it appropriate. Charles Dickens opens David Copperfield musing on “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life. . .” In our more private moments, we all create stories for ourselves in which we achieve great things. It passes the time and can leave a positive view of possible futures. In this spirit, I’m tempted to place Peter S. Beagle as the hero in his own fantasy mythology. Here’s a real-life Rip Van Winkle of writers. Legend has him arriving on this plane in the primordial past (sometimes boringly referred to as 1939). Like all good superheroes in the making, he lurks in the shadows until emerging with A Fine and Private Place in 1960 as the taster for The Last Unicorn, published in 1968 and one of the one-hundred best fantasy novels of all-time. He then slept for eighteen years, finally awaking to write The Folk of the Air in 1986. A further brief slumber takes us to The Innkeeper’s Song in 1993, followed by Giant Bones in 1997, a collection of stories set in the Innkeeper’s World. This seems to have finally jerked him more fully into our time frame and, after the years of sleep, he’s now able to stay awake for weeks, giving him more than enough time to become prolific, turning out short stories, novelettes and novellas as if there’s no tomorrow. Truly, he has become a writer of heroic proportions, recently being nominated for and winning both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He’s also been nominated for the World Fantasy Award while picking up one of these Outstanding Achievement Awards that we give to our revered elders.
So, with Return, we’re back in the world of the Innkeeper. Karsh keeps The Gaff and Slasher. It’s a watering hole outside Corcuna and, in the first outing, we’re introduced to a number of people including Lal and Nyateneri who, for reasons that need not concern us here, becomes Soukyan later in the first book. Soukyan and Lal reappear in Giant Bones and Soukyan is the hero of Return. For those of you who like perfect information, Soukyan also appears in a novelette called “Quarry” which is collected in The Line Between.
Return fills in the backstory, explaining where Soukyan grew up and why he is pursued. In some ways, it’s not typical Beagle in that we have a linear adventure narrative rather than one of the more usual personal stories in which people discover something important about themselves and/or find redemption. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this is a rather routine story in which our hero fights the good fight, not quite in barbarian rippling-muscle mode, but with his bow and a knife. In the end, he prevails, as all heroes in fantasy adventures must, but we have no real sense that he is seriously worried by his increasingly precarious situation. Whether he is fighting for his life or enduring a session of torture, he always seems detached, merely waiting for the next turn of events to set him back on track again. If Beagle is offering us a message it is that some people rightly turn down access to power. This is rather on a par with Star Wars in which the Jedi reject the dark side of the Force even though it potentially offers more power. They know that the more power one has, the greater the risk of being corrupted by it. Not very profound is it. Worse, Soukyan actually does have personal power in magic denied to others. He’s already the superior of the average human so, in rejecting membership of the mysterious organisation, he’s not really losing out that much.
This is not to deny the ingenuity both of the source of the hunters that pursue Soukyan and of the explanation for luring him back. Indeed, this inventiveness almost saves the whole. But, sadly, the overall feel is rather mechanical, particularly as it affects the behaviour of Brother Laska. So I find myself disappointed. In reaching this conclusion, I admit that my expectations for any story by Peter Beagle are always high and, in his defence, this is one of the few stories that have disappointed over the last ten years. If you come to him without having read much of his work, you might find this a ripping yarn and be mightily impressed. For those of you who, like me, have read everything he has written, this is not one of his best.
The jacket art and interior illustrations are by Maurizio Manzieri. It’s probably my eyesight, but there seems to be something wrong with the perspective of the illustration showing Soukyan drawing his bow, but the general effect is reasonably pleasing. This is another of these Subterranean Press signed and limited editions. For me, it’s not quite worth the money but, with any luck, it will hold most of its value until I decide to sell it on.