The Ale Boy’s Feast: The White Strand in the Auralia Tapestry
By Jeffrey Overstreet
I’m a little befuddled on how to review this book. I loved most of what I read, and nearly every negative could be easily mitigated by the nature of what I’ve read: I read book four in a series, but not the previous three books.
Problems with characters being only half-introduced? Assumptions of previous knowledge? Plot twists that come from no where yet seem to make logical sense to the characters? Yep, depending what has come before, all those things would vanish.
And here’s the thing: I want to read the previous books, based on what I’ve read here. Plot-wise, I was lost for the first chunk of the story. Numerous characters appeared and vanished to not return for hundreds of pages. Yet the poetic style of the prose and the rich descriptions of emotions, creatures, weather, and landscape held my attention and refused to let go. I want to go back and discover the history of these characters. I want to learn what brought them to their situations in book four.
The novel does begin with a “previously” section, which I suspect serves as a much better review for returning readers than a primer for first-time visitors to the Expanse. At the start of the action, many characters are in sundry places. The King of House Abascar, a city which has been decimated, huddles in the ruins of his kingdom. He is alone. Far to the south, an exiled Mage attempts to go home to discover the secrets he was never allowed to have. In the East, many of the survivors of House Abascar decide to follow their king’s dream: Found a city in the North, the legendary home of their great ancestor. And in the north, other survivors of the fallen city struggle to escape slavery by following an underground river. Overstreet turns the various threads of his tapestry to good effect. Characters are well defined, even as much previous knowledge is assumed.
I greatly enjoyed the palpable sense of tension in every aspect of the story. Every hero is beset by great challenges.
One set of challenges presents itself in the beastmen. These humans were seduced by the Seers with potions that would give strength. These are not mindless orcs that the heroes may slay with impunity; these are men and women who have been released to their basest urges, but also have been greatly abused. Moral challenges face the protagonists as they battle these brutes.
Another villainous set presents itself in deathweed and its later progeny, the viscorclaws. The roots of plants thrash about, seeking to tear apart flesh and drink blood. Overstreet describes these creatures with delicious precision. He paints a forest bereft of animal life, with vegetation seeking another meal. Later, plants themselves become mobile, and hunt any flesh it might find.
As the various groups of protagonists face their challenges and eventually find each other, reuniting House Abascar, they discover the ancient throne of their ancestor, and new mysteries arise.
Overstreet develops a fascinating theology. I’d be willing to place this near Narnia in concept: What if there was another world? How might God deal with that world? In the Expanse, humans worship the Keeper, which every child dreams about. Through the course of the tale, the King of House Abascar, Cal-Raven, discovers that there are fourteen Keepers. What does that mean? Are all his beliefs lies? What he learns is a valuable lesson for us as well, I imagine. I won’t say more, except to say I was satisfied with almost every bit of theology. The only thing that bothered me was a possible universalism, as even the great villain, that world’s devil, is brought to heaven at the conclusion of the story. Yet, given the world, it made sense; what theology Overstreet introduces for his fictional world may not cross over to ours.
I recommend this book, though I suggest you don’t read it as I did, with the final volume first. It’s great fantasy, great characters, a living world, and it asks fantastic questions.
Legal nuts and bolts: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.