After writing two of the best novels in fantasy, A Fine and Private Place (1960) and The Last Unicorn (1968), Peter S. Beagle drifted away from fiction for nearly twenty years. His return, The Folk of the Air (1986), was fairly lackluster, but his next, inspired by a song lyric he had once written, was The Innkeeper's Song (1993), and since then he has consistently been one of the most acclaimed writers in the genre. He is hailed, and rightly so, for the quality of his prose, the humanity of his characterization, and the fact that his fantasies are rarely what you expect them to be. Within the generally very narrow limits of genre fantasy he has managed to spring some effective and moving surprises.
Beagle has gone on record saying that The Innkeeper's Song is his personal favourite among his novels, which is hardly surprising when you consider the number of times he has returned to the world. The stories in Giant Bones (1997) are all set there, as have been numerous stories since then. Though The Innkeeper's Song and its offshoots have more of a feel of generic fantasy than his earlier work, with the familiar rural, sub-medieval setting and the role of magic in the world, at their best they have a deeper resonance, a lingering sense of loss and regret, and a vivid evocation of love or age or loyalty that seems to transcend their recognizable roots. Some, if not all, of these returns have generated stories as intense, rich, and engaging as practically anything else he has written. Yet there is a law of diminishing returns, and this new novella suggests that the level of invention necessary to sustain this story sequence is fast running out of steam. And, furthermore, I would hazard that Beagle knows this and is using this story to draw a line under the sequence.
We begin with one of the central characters in the sequence, Soukyan, the mercenary who travels the land offering his services as a swordsman while all the time awaiting the next attack by the Hunters. The Hunters have been on his trail ever since he fled from the strange monastery where he was raised. They always come in teams of three, and to this point Soukyan has always been able to defeat them. Nevertheless, the perennial sense of danger occasioned by their relentless pursuit coupled with the invention needed for each new escape has lent an underlying drama to many of the most subtle and intriguing of the stories set in this world. "Quarry," collected in The Line Between (2006), for instance, uses the basic pursuit narrative to paint a subtle picture of mutual need and dependence.
Yet the attack that opens this novella is both routine and strange. Routine in that the Hunters come one by one to where Soukyan awaits them in a clearing in the wood, and allow him to defeat them with almost negligent ease. There is no challenge here, no drama. But it is strange in that the second and third hunters are seen fighting each other, and when the second has been killed the third runs away. Soukyan chases after him, only to discover him apparently dying of natural causes.
There is, inevitably, a relationship between hunter and hunted, and in fictions such as this we accept that this relationship is even more intense than it ever would be in reality. Hunter and hunted define each other, provide the roles the characters need to adopt in order to have a place within the story. And since the nameless, characterless Hunters have pursued Soukyan across so many tales, we may even accept that Soukyan has a level of self-awareness, that he knows his Story demands the eternal chase. Perhaps. But such self-awareness, such acceptance, demands a post-modern sensibility that Beagle nowhere exhibits. And yet, without some sense that the hunted needs the hunter, I find it difficult to accept what happens next. And what happens next is the whole point of the story.
Because the unusual behaviour of the Hunters is all it takes to make Soukyan immediately set out, alone, to return to the strange monastery of his childhood, the source of the Hunters. If a group of single-minded assassins had been pursuing you remorselessly for years, if you had barely escaped with your life from encounter after encounter, would you instantly set out for the assassins' base simply because one of them behaved a little oddly? No, neither would I. But this is fantasy, and very generic fantasy at that, as we discover not too much later in the story when Soukyan is tortured at length and left barely clinging to life, yet within a few pages is recovered enough to perform stirring acts of derring-do against any number of enemies. There is, in all this, an insensitivity to the realities of human nature that astounds me coming from Beagle.
Speaking of insensitivities, I should mention that the book has some very fine interior illustrations by Maurizio Manzieri. Well, very fine except for one thing: they all represent Soukyan as a woman. At one point, and briefly, Soukyan uses magic to appear as a woman in order to gain entrance to the monastery. But the disguise is soon abandoned, and in any case does not fool Master Caldrea, leader of the monks and arch villain, for a moment. At all other points in the story, as in all the other tales that feature Soukyan, he is unquestionably male. Why the artist chose to misrepresent the central character, and indeed why the publishers did not pause to question such a representation, is beyond me, though it does suggest a certain carelessness behind this deluxe edition.
Anyway, Soukyan, without bothering to make any preparations, obtains entrance to the site of his childhood nightmares and home of his deadliest enemies. His disguise quickly abandoned, Soukyan engages in the sort of bantering dialogue with Master Caldrea that James Bond always seemed to manage with his latest nemesis, before being violently tortured (again rather like Bond) and then still being capable of escaping rather easily from a supposedly escape-proof prison. Thereupon, with the convenient help of one of the old timers in the monastery, he discovers the supernatural source of Caldrea's power, the origin of the Hunters, and of course emerges victorious. What else do we expect? This is the most traditional, the most generic of fantasy stories.
And so it comes to an end: the tale of hunter and hunted that has underlain so many of the stories from the world of the Innkeeper's Song reaches an end. With it, do we imagine, the entire sequence? There are other characters, other tales that could be pursued. But here, in this novella, it feels tired, too reliant on cliché; the only surprise from this most surprising of authors is how unsurprising this entire story is. Whether or not the sequence has run its course, this is not the work of an author delighting in the construction of new adventures within the established realm. And if it does not excite the author, one wonders whether this novella will excite any other than the die-hard fans.