Peter S. Beagle, Giant Bones (Roc, 1997)


Peter S. Beagle does not do sequels. He says. He is also one of the two fantasy writers I know who quite blithely admits that his universe-building is more than a little haphazard, just enough to hang the story on.

So of course he wrote a group of stories set in the universe of The Innkeeper's Song.

The stories are not about the place, although the place is very much a part of them. The only characters who reappear are Lal and Soukyan (who was Nyateneri for most of Innkeeper's Song). It's really a journey through the world, and in several cases ("The Magician of Karakosk," "Chousi-Wai's Story," and the title story) into...well, call it the "legendry" of Beagle's creation, although it could also be its history.

There are threads that run through all these stories that are not about the place at all. Most of the stories have an element of redemption through atonement, particularly "The Last Song of Sirit Bayar" and "Lal and Soukyan." Both stories center on journeys, and in both cases the journey is to right an old wrong. The bard Sirit Bayar seeks to heal the woman who bore his child, now married to someone else and fearsome in her madness: she lost the child and its father, and now inhabits a dark world of her own. Lal and Soukyan travel to make right something that Soukyan claims haunts him, although it happened many years ago: they shamed a prison guard in front of his son during an escape. When they arrive at their destination, the guard has died long since, his son has moved away, and no one remembers the escape. They have, however, rescued Riaan, a peasant boy, from his brutish overlord, little more than a peasant himself, and in spite of themselves reunite Riaan with his father, whom he never knew.

Another common element is transformation. In "The Magician of Karakosk," an evil queen transforms herself in order to kill the humble magician whom she forced to teach her his spells. And in "Choushi-Wai's Story," the peasant girl Tai-sharm is rescued from her unwanted marriage to a king by the unlikely partnership of a thief and a magical fish: the fish simply transforms Tai-sharm into a fish herself, and they ride away comfortably in a tightly-woven basket borne by the thief.

"Giant Bones" is, I think, the most subtle and moving story in the collection. It is a family legend told by a father to a sleepless son who is afraid he will be short all his life (he's nine years old at this point). It concerns a several-times-great grandfather, a tinker who decided to move on across the mountains and was saved from a rock-targ by a giant. Grandfather Simsim spends eighteen years with the giants, a thoughtful, gentle people who are dying off one by one. Simsim becomes the only celebrant of the death ritual for the very last of the giants, an act which leaves its mark on all his own descendants.

As you can see from my comments about "Lal and Soukyan" and "The Magician of Karakosk," irony plays an important role in Beagle's work. One of the best examples in this collection is "The Tragical Historie of the Jiril's Players," related by Dardis, the manager of a troupe of actors. Under the Jiril's rule, Dardis is living every theatrical manager's dream: a spacious theater, an adequate budget, and devoted audiences. Irony enters the picture when, quite in spite of himself, he manages to place the company in the position of precipitating a coup by the one agent the Jiril, with his four obstreperous sons and dishrag of a daughter, is simply not prepared for.

As is always the case with Beagle, the most compelling aspect of these stories is the sheer humanity of the characters. All but one of the stories is told in first-person, and the narrators shine through clearly, with the same fits and starts and digressions and natural wanderings that mark any real conversation. Whether the stories they tell are commonplace or bizarre, the concrete reality of the people — from the exasperated invective of Mircha Del, narrator of "The Last Song of Sirit Bayar," through the smoothly professional approaches of storyteller Choushi-Wai and the rueful Dardis — bring these tales to life, and render any distinctions between what's normal and what is not pretty much irrelevant.

So the Innkeeper's World is a fascinating place, even if it was put together from bits and pieces as needed. Word is that Beagle is not yet finished with it, or at least not the people who live there: several new stories have been written, and there will probably be more. Not bad from a guy who doesn't do sequels.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

illustration from Matthew Williams' cover art for the 1999 English trade pb of The Magician of Karakosk (aka Giant Bones)

Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy ]: