The Innkeeper’s Songis a one-volume fantasy for mature readers that is by turns (or even simultaneously) lyrical and maddening. Lyrical because much of its language is, in contemporary fantasy, on par with only Patricia McKillip and Guy Gavriel Kay. Maddening because — despite the full-throttle beginning, intricately woven characters and a world made wondrous without a map or long descriptions but simply by names and prosaic brushstrokes — the promise of the beginning and middle absolutely fizzles to a all-but-incomprehensible anti-climax in which none of the characters’ skills, virtues or flaws seem to matter. It’s the equivalent of dreaming oneself into a world of rich and dread beauty, flying over that world so freely as to go beyond dreaming entirely… and then being slapped awake to find oneself flailing at the air and wondering, “What might have been…”
The tale concerns three women who arrive at an inn in the course of their quest to protect their ancient magician-friend from a renegade apprentice so that he might die in peace and not rise as a tormented ghost. The three are a warrior-nun who has escaped her convent; a legendary thief-sailor-swordsman; and a village girl whom the thief raised from a drowning death with the magician’s ring. Added to these memorable figures are the earnest stable-boy; the gruff innkeeper; the nun’s companion (a fox); and the stubborn boy who was betrothed to the village girl and follows her in the hope of reclaiming their lost love.
Each chapter proceeds from the first-person viewpoint of a different character (central or not), which works well overall but sometimes proves tiresome, especially when the author chooses (or is forced to) use a minor character as the “camera” for a particular scene or plot development or when the character’s “voice” is confusing or not quite right. However, the chapters told by the thief are particularly well done; and she emerges as one of the most admirable, engaging characters in contemporary fantasy. (One actually wishes for more tales of Lal, Sailor Lal, Swordcane Lal, Lal-after-dark.)