Climbing Raven’s LadderBook Reviews — By Lindsay Stallones on January 20, 2010 at 10:19 pm
A good book is a rare delight, and a good fantasy book, rarer still. Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia Thread promises four great ones. Overstreet began his career not as an author, but as a film reviewer. His book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies should be on every film lover’s bookshelf. It’s the diary of a man’s journey through film and faith, and one of the most honest and intelligent works of its kind. Overstreet knows the art of cinema, and he deftly leads his audience through the magic of good cinema, ever pushing the reader toward deeper understanding and confrontation with the complexity of art that seeks to reflect the human experience.
This sensibility makes him an excellent author. His Auralia Thread avoids the pitfalls that assail many fantasy authors because of his deep love for cinematic arts. The series begins with Auralia’s Colors. Rather than being the typical introductory book that follows fantasy convention, Auralia’s Colors surprises the reader at every turn. So many fantasy works from The Golden Compass to tv series like Legend of the Seeker have a single, fatal flaw: they are slaves to the greater works that inspired them, from The Chronicles of Prydain to The Lord of the Rings. Instead, like greater works in fantasy such as Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion or Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy, the Auralia Thread strikes out on its own and carves out a beautiful corner of the imaginative realm. Like its title character, Auralia’s Colors refuses to be told what it should be.
The trilogy follows the story of an orphan named Auralia who appears mysteriously, whose eccentricity challenges the powerbrokers of her world, and whose generosity softens the hearts of the hardest criminals of her kingdom. Dazzled by the beauty of the world around her, Auralia weaves its colors into her whimsical gifts in defiance of a decree against such extravagance. When her magnum opus, a cloak of many colors, shakes the very foundations of House Abascar, Auralia’s audacity peels back the comfort and complacency of everyone from ale boy to king and introduces the mystery of the creature known as the Keeper. Her brief presence changes everyone in the Expanse, from the heir to Abascar’s throne to the curse-ridden beastmen of House Cent Regus.
In the latest installation of the series, Raven’s Ladder, Overstreet improves on an already excellent story. His love of film reveals itself in his writing. No moment is wasted. A character introduced offhand in the first chapter may prove to be the linchpin of the novel’s plot in its last chapter, and hints dropped in the first novel turn into major revelations in the third book. The story plays on its readers’ expectations, and delights them in the twists and turns it takes toward its conclusion.
He also continues the series’ habit of telling the story out of order. Rather than guide the reader through a typical fantasy plot, Overstreet focuses on giving the reader an experience of his complex world through its characters. The result is a delightful tapestry of vivid images that stay with you long after you put the book down. It is the beauty and mystery of these images that give the book its depth.
Fantasy tends toward heavy-handed symbolism, but the Auralia Thread instead feels soaked in meaning and pushes the reader to decipher the symbols without the aid of exposition. It’s the kind of deft writing that leads the reader through a Socratic experience. His beastmen of Cent Regus, for example would be stand-ins for orcs in any other series, a clearly evil group of enemies who may justifiably be destroyed by triumphant heroes. Instead, Overstreet introduces a moral complexity by asking if it is possible to redeem them from a curse of their own making and restore them to humanity.
Raven’s Ladder is the third installment in the series, awaiting its completion in the as-yet untitled fourth book. Like the preceding books, it focuses on the experience of one of the key characters of Overstreet’s universe, this time Cal-Raven of Abascar. And like the other books, when it seems the author is about to reveal a mystery established in Auralia’s Colors, the revelation unfolds the complexity of the story and raises more questions, revealing more facets in each character, and in its final chapter, the most stunning surprise of the series so far.
Kathy Tyers said “Reading Raven’s Ladder is like staring at a richly imagined world through a kaleidoscope.” There’s no better description than that. Take an afternoon, brew some strong tea (or better yet, a mug of spiced wine) and dive into the magical, mystical world of the Expanse. It will haunt you for days as all good stories do, and you might find yourself absent-mindedly sketching Auralia or feeling a strong urge to buy some crochet needles and yarn. I certainly did, and I think that might be the highest compliment we can pay Jeffrey Overstreet for his beautiful story. ‘