Review: Giant Bones by Peter S. Beagle

Giant Bones by Peter S. Beagle. ROC Books, 1997

Giant Bones is a collection of six stories set in the world of The Innkeeper’s Song , which was apparently quite a surprise to the author, as he explained in his Foreward “I don’t do sequels.” Here is an author who prides himself on doing something different in every book, and yet here he was, writing, if not necessarily sequels, a group of stories set in the same universe, a universe that Beagle thought he was done with. The universe itself clearly had other ideas.

“The Last Song of Sirit Byar” is the story of a legendary bard, as told by his rather unusual assistant, and the power of a bard’s final song. “Lal and Soukyan” is the only thing approaching a sequel and concerns the two title characters, very important players in The Innkeeper’s Song, and how and why they met again for one last adventure many years later. “The Magician of Karakosk” concerns an untutored wizard named Lanak and the true nature of magic. While it has no characters in common with Beagle’s novel, readers of that novel should recognize the sort of wizard that Lanak is, and why there is a vast and profound distinction between a wizard in Beagle’s universe and someone who simply throws spells around, as one scheming queen soon learns. “The Tragical Historie of Jiril’s Players” should resonate with anyone who has ever been involved in theatre. The author doesn’t even consider it a fantasy, but I do. Despite the fact that, in the context of his universe–and most others–it could have happened. “Choushi-Wai’s Story” follows from “Lal and Soukyan” in the character of Choushi-Wai herself, a young girl who appears in that previous story to learn the ways of the inbarati, the storytellers of Lal’s homeland, and then applies them as the framing device for her own story that might, just might, be my favorite piece in the whole book. The book finishes with the title story, “Giant Bones,” a sort of demented bedtime story about an obscure piece of family history, for some chosen values of family that reach beyond blood.

Besides all being set in the universe of The Innkeeper’s Song, some of the stories interconnect through common characters, like Choushi-Wai in both “Choushi-Wai’s Story” and “Lal and Soukyan.” Some connect with common references, but for anyone who has read The Innkeeper’s Song (and if not, why?), there’s never any doubt as so where you are and who these people are, even the ones you’ve never met outside of this particular book. That connection is usually a strength, but one of the few quibbles I have about this book is the same one I had about the novel—Beagle’s tendency to make up creatures, give them a function, but seldom describes them adequately, or sometimes at all. We do finally get to know rock-targs and churfas a good deal better, but most of the rest you have to draw from context and function. It’s almost on a par with the old science-fiction writing advice “never call a rabbit a smerp.” Beagle seems a little guilty of that in this universe, but once you get to know the creatures a little better, it works. It just doesn’t work right away, and can throw you out of the story if you’re not expecting it. If you get your baptism of the new flora and fauna in the novel, it helps a great deal in appreciating Giant Bones, where Beagle has even less room for explanations. Except for the churfas. Those bad-tempered, flatulent, odorous, but ultimately lovable not-horses. And the far less than lovable rock-targs. These two are almost worth the price of admission all by themselves.

All that aside, these are Peter Beagle stories. If you already know what that means, I don’t need to tell you. If you don’t know, well, a few pages of reading beats an encyclopedia of explanation.