Whenever I discuss writing fantasy with young authors and would-be authors, the question of how to avoid the clichés of classic fantasy inevitably comes up. One answer, of course, is to avoid writing classic fantasy. Most find this solution unsatisfactory. Another answer, and the one that people seem to find the most useful, is simply that there are no "clichés" — there are icons, recurring images, even archetypes, all of which are useful, and all of which have power. Their handling may be trite (and all too often is), but not the elements themselves.
That said, let me point out that I should, by now, know better than to expect anything predictable from Peter S. Beagle. There is only one The Last Unicorn, and only one "Come Lady Death." Beagle himself says that he has always wanted his novels and stories to be as different from each other as possible. Even so, I was surprised by The Innkeeper's Song, which is a big, loose novel. I don't mean long, I mean big — it doesn't seem willing to stay within the bounds of the story at all.
Tikat and Lukassa have grown up together in their small village and plan to wed in the spring of their eighteenth year. As the spring finally comes, while they are standing on the old bridge over the river one evening, the railing breaks, and Lukassa falls in and is drowned. Then, at night, after a fruitless search by the whole village has finally ended, Tikat sees a strange black woman on a horse in the river. The mysterious woman sings an eerie nonsense rhyme. Called by the song, Lukassa rises from her watery grave, apparently alive again, and rides off with the woman. Tikat, willing to accept Lukassa's revival but not her departure, follows...beginning a quest that will, of course, take him to surprising and dangerous places.
Three women arrive at an inn, The Gaff and Slasher outside of Corcorua, run by the innkeeper Karsh. One is the black woman of Tikat's river, called Lal. The second, Nyateneri, is tall, strong-looking, and brown. The third is Lukassa, "as pale as the moon by day," who objects strenuously to the first room they are offered because it was the scene of a death. They are on a quest of their own, in search of a wizard who was teacher to two of them, Lal and Nyateneri. They don't know why their teacher has called them, but he has. There are other mysteries accompanying them: the pet fox who is not always a fox, nor even really a pet; the two assassins who are following Nyateneri, and wind up dead in the inn's bathhouse. Strange events begin to happen at the inn, especially after they finally find their wizard. And Tikat appears, eventually, more than half dead himself. He is given into the care of the stable boy, Rosseth, who is distracted by his fascination with the three women.
So — the female warrior archetype (both Lal and Nyateneri, although the latter, as it happens, is somewhat ambiguous in that role), wizards (two, one bad and one neutral), the brave peasant (Tikat), the bumbling stable boy (Rosseth), the shapechanger (the Fox), the innkeeper whose heart of gold is deeply hidden behind a blustering manner (Karsh): they're all there. The types are familiar, but they are most certainly not clichés. Not in Beagle's hands.
One reason is, I think, that Beagle is a master of characterization. I've remarked on this aspect of Beagle's talent elsewhere, but The Innkeeper's Song depends on it to an extraordinary degree, simply because it is told as a series of first-person narratives, with the chapters rotating among various main and secondary characters: even the Fox has something to say. This is an immense writing challenge, yet there is never any doubt who is talking, even when the differences are subtle — the contrast between Rosseth and the Fox, for example, is obvious; between Lal and Nyateneri, not so much, but it's definitely there.
Beagle's diction is also worth noting. Throughout the narrative there is poetry of a kind few writers ever manage, and it comes through no matter who is speaking. It is the poetry of things left unsaid, of inferences, of meanings lying just beneath the words, and it builds a compelling story by means that we don't notice save in retrospect. The Innkeeper's Song is an easy book to read, for the most part — although there are one or two places where the narration is a bit much, mostly to do with the Fox and Lukassa, who share an exhausting intensity — but it is not an easy book. In fact, it's a substantial book, not so much because of any great themes (though it has them, in a subtle and nuanced form), but simply from its weight as a deliberate and conscious work of art.
I love it when that happens.
illustration from elements of Kira Santa's cover art for the 2005 Hungarian trade pb of The Innkeeper's Song
Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: