I love epic fantasy, which is why I write it. The Auralia Thread series by Jeffrey Overstreet is epic fantasy — a grand, involved, heroic story, in this case, one that took four books to tell. The Ale Boy’s Feast is the conclusion of this sprawling tale.
The Story. The Ale Boy’s Feast begins where Raven’s Ladder left off. King Cal-raven, having tried to free the slaves the beastmen were holding, is wounded and left for dead, thinking that he has failed. He receives surprising help, however, and is off to meet up with a band of his people seeking the site he has dubbed New Abascar.
The Ale Boy, also an apparent causality of the events in the Core, is resuscitated and in turn, uses the healing waters to revive the captives that had been ambushed. His intent is to lead them out of the putrid underground wasteland and to find King Cal-raven.
These are two central figures, though there is a host of others, each playing a critical part in the weaving of the complex story. Ultimately, each battles to defeat or to spread the Curse that overshadows The Expanse. Some side with evil in a subtle, duplicitous way. Others side with good after they have come to their senses. Their redemption contributes to the overall theme, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Strengths. An epic fantasy, in my opinion, depends on the world building. Readers must be sold on this place where the story unfolds. It must feel real, must have its own set of consistent rules, must seem tangible. In that aspect, Jeffrey couldn’t have done better.
His world is imaginative, dense, textured, rich. While it is totally unlike in kind, I would compare his world building to that of J. K. Rowling in its density. The reader is saturated in this world, and none of the aspects of the magic, religion, topography, social or political structure, history, etc. breaks that fictive dream.
Regarding the theme of the book, Jeffrey uses several extended metaphors (or perhaps metaphysical conceits), particularly the thread image used in the series title, to address ideas of beauty and how it points to “mystery” — the meaning and purpose behind all of life. Of course, as a Christian, I understand “mystery” to be God. For those who do not know Him through His Son as revealed in His Word, I suspect He does appear as a mystery. Clearly, Jeffrey wasn’t trying to make a statement about God in this work, but about art and its affect on the cursed, broken world in which we live. I believe he accomplished what he set out to do. (For an excellent look at the spiritual aspects of the series, I suggest Sarah Sawyer’s Day 3 article).
A third strength that bears repeating is the beauty of the prose. Reviewers who compare Jeffrey’s writing to painting have it right, in my opinion. His words give the reader a visual rendering of the scenic background. At the same time, his words have a poetic quality.
Another worthy aspect of this book is the rendering of the characters as real people, with flaws and strengths, willing to try, often failing, sometimes willing to repent and change, sometimes choosing heroic actions, and sometimes dying because of their choices. No one, if he is honest, can come away from an Overstreet novel thinking he has read about flat, undeveloped characters.
Weaknesses. In each of the other volumes in the series, I’ve commented on the multiple points of view and how following such a large number of characters causes me to be disengaged from all of them. Unfortunately, that issue was front and center in The Ale Boy’s Feast. Because I didn’t have an emotional tie with any of the characters, I consequently didn’t feel the danger, suspense, tension that many of the confrontations and intrigue should have engendered.
I wasn’t helped, I don’t believe, by how fragmented the narrative was, as one after another of the story lines was interrupted and left to be picked up later, only to be dropped all too quickly.
Yes, in an adequate way, Jeffrey resolved all these diverse threads. However, this was not a story I ever felt lost in because I was too busy constantly trying to reorient myself to the place, time, circumstances, and character.
Recommendation. The Ale Boy’s Feast is an artistic triumph. However, this one isn’t for readers wanting a story that sweeps them along at a fast pace. This story may not satisfy a reader whose burning question driving their reading experience is “What happens next.” On the other hand, for someone who prefers a literary flare and who loves epic fantasy, this is the perfect book.
In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.