by Peter S. Beagle
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
In his new novella Return, author Peter S. Beagle returns to the extraordinary Fantasy realm he first introduced in his 1993 novel The Innkeeper’s Song, and proves once again that his prose style is unmatched for wit and grace.
But despite its familiar setting and distinguishing style, Return is a somewhat atypical offering from Beagle—perhaps most remarkable for the fact that the story in and of itself will probably have very little bearing on whether or not you choose to buy the book.
Picking up one of the major plot threads left dangling at the end of The Innkeeper’s Song, Return chronicles the attempt by Innkeeper’s protagonist Soukyan to confront the assassins dogging him, journeying back to the mysterious monastery from which he fled thirty years earlier and risking certain death to come to terms with his past.
It’s a past that readers of Innkeeper’s were left mainly to guess at, and this story provides some welcome information for fans, while shedding light on yet another corner of Beagle’s fantastic literary landscape.
The world presented in The Innkeeper’s Song was so fully-fleshed and dynamic that Beagle could have continued the story in any one of a hundred different directions with any of the characters—which the author demonstrated in his masterful 1997 collection Giant Bones, featuring six tales set entirely in the Innkeeper’s universe, including “Lal and Soukyan” the first story to revisit specific Innkeeper’s characters.
As those stories demonstrated, when Beagle is behind the keyboard, compelling fiction is what happens when characters are busy making other plans. His protagonists always wind up in much different places than they at first intend. This is especially evident in “Lal and Soukyan” which begins as a fairly routine quest for redemption and ends up as a haunting and poignant ghost story.
But Return is an uncharacteristically straightforward tale, with few literary detours. This directness is appropriate, since the story demands that Soukyan engage in a focused, solitary mission. But that necessity doesn’t make for an insular tale. The narrative still handily acknowledges the broader Innkeeper’s universe, giving an ample sense of the potential marvels that lie just over the next rise. And even though you don’t get to see them this time out, the origins of Soukyan’s mysterious assassins provide wonder equal to any other Innkeeper’s offering.
But despite that, Subterranean Press isn’t banking strictly on story quality to sell this novella, since Return is already available to read for free on the Subterranean Press website, in an online edition of the publisher’s monthly Subterranean magazine.
The book version will be released in September as a 1,000 copy limited edition cloth-bound hardcover, featuring illustrations by artist Maurizio Manzieri, whose multiple accolades include the Chesley Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists. And as evinced by the advance proof, Return is a beautifully designed book.
This premium volume is clearly meant to appeal to Beagle fans and/or book collectors. If you’re one or both, you’d do very well to order a copy in advance. Subterranean’s two previous Beagle titles, Mirror Kingdoms and The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version, have both sold out. There’s little doubt Return will do the same.
In terms of presentation, the book will prove a gem to any collector’s library. And in terms of story, Return is a worthy enough addition to the Innkeeper’s universe to make readers hope that Beagle will return again and again to this distinctive Fantasy milieu.