Beauty Will Save the World

Art & Literature, Book Reviews, Culture, Media — By on March 14, 2011 at 7:00 am

Jeffrey Overstreet writes like Vincent Van Gogh painted. I had the opportunity to see some of Van Gogh’s finest works earlier this year at an exhibit at San Francisco’s De Young Museum. It was like walking through an explosion of creative beauty. Van Gogh’s use of color, his bold, even violent brushstrokes that leave great gobs of glistening paint on the canvas draw the viewer into the world as Van Gogh saw it, swirling with passionate beauty. I stood before Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888) for what felt like hours until it felt like I was outside looking up at the stars as Van Gogh saw them, and even in a city that fancies itself so artistically sophisticated that its residents practically view Van Gogh as pop art, people gasped as they spied the painting for the first time. That’s the power of his work. It grabs you by the throat, overwhelms you with beauty, and makes it impossible for you to look at the objects he painted the same way again. He created worlds that are at once utterly familiar and completely alien, worlds that beckon the viewer.

Overstreet is a literary impressionist, and his understated yet vivid narrative style overwhelms the imagination. The Expanse, a vaguely medieval world teeming with unusual fantasy elements is out in full force in the final novel of Overstreet’s Auralia Thread, The Ale Boy’s Feast. As in the previous installments of the series, it does not disappoint. Even for a loyal reader of the stories, Overstreet still has some surprises left in the complex world of his making that he reveals not through an overindulgence of description, but sharp, clear narrative that doesn’t waste an ounce of emotional impact. Overstreet’s gift is allowing the story and its characters to drive his novels, and the result is a fantasy series that feels authentic and new, both familiar and strange at once. The Ale Boy’s Feast does more than just tell the end of a story; it invites the reader into the world of the Expanse with a cast of beautifully complex characters to join them in pursuit of the mystery that calls us all.

For the uninitiated, the Auralia Thread tells the story of a young woman named Auralia, an artist who lives in House Abascar, a kingdom that has banned all color. Through her mysterious ability to turn the world around her into art that has the power to heal, she transforms those around her, makes enemies of the rulers of the Abascar, and suffers in its dungeons before being taken by a being called the Keeper. In the wake of her disappearance and House Abascar’s ruin, the story follows the journey of the people who met her, the two old criminals who raised her, the nameless ale boy who befriended her, the heir to Abascar’s throne who tried to save her, even a beastman who learned to love her. For two books they struggle, triumph, flounder, fail, and search for the girl who showed them a life better than their own. Overstreet’s stories are beautiful as rich, fantasy novels, but they also manage to transcend their genre and its tropes. Two themes recur throughout the stories that take them beyond fun fiction and into the realm of art.

The books don’t merely embrace the idea of mystery – they welcome it with open arms, invite it inside and make it a nice hot cup of tea while it warms itself by the fire. In a genre rife with sloppy allegory, the Auralia Thread glories in the fact that truth and beauty are so often hidden from us. Unlike most concluding chapters of an epic, The Ale Boy’s Feast, while it satisfies some of its readers’ curiosity, refuses to “answer” all the questions the previous books raised. Throughout the book, the characters must struggle with that hiddenness. Throughout the book Auralia’s whereabouts remain a mystery to most characters, including the ones who seek her most. The survivors of House Abascar seek the great hidden city that will be their new home, but even that turns out to be yet another gateway to mystery. The ale boy, once found, is then snatched away again by the Keeper, and when the veil of the mystery of the elusive Keeper is finally lifted, it reveals yet another hidden path to new mystery. In another author’s work, this could frustrate readers and leave them feeling cheated, but Overstreet crafted a series in which the reader journeys with the characters rather than watching them from afar, and he does not shrink from hard truths. In reality as in the Expanse, truth and beauty hide from us. Pursuing them is our life’s calling, and fiction that tells us they can be captured or fully known this side of Heaven is hollow. Their hiddenness is a delight; it is what makes our journey an adventure, and the hope that they are so wonderful that we can spend our lives learning and never plumb their depths is what makes the journey worth taking.

The pursuit of beauty isn’t just a search for pretty or pleasant things. The beauty in The Ale Boy’s Feast is sometimes a comfort, and sometimes a terror, but it is beauty that will save the world. It was beauty that showed Jordam the beastman a way out of the Cent Regus curse that made him and his kinsmen inhuman, and that beauty cost him everything but gave him more. Some of the book’s best moments are in the beauty of forgiveness and the transformation of the series’ worst villains. The beauty the characters chase in the Expanse is a beauty that won’t be contained, not even behind the walls of an ancient city or within the ideology that could inspire the broken people of House Abascar to rebuild. At each turn the truth of Auralia’s colors defies those who try to define them or use them, even for good purposes. It’s only in surrendering to the power of that beauty and humbling themselves before it that the characters have a chance to find redemption.

And redemption is the heartbeat of these books. It’s what pumps life through what would otherwise be just an exciting story. The power of beauty, beauty Auralia herself doesn’t understand, to redeem pain is the most profound part of The Ale Boy’s Feast. And again, it’s what reminds me of Van Gogh when I read them. Last year, the BBC series Doctor Who aired an episode called “Vincent and the Doctor” in which the Doctor and Amy met Vincent Van Gogh. In the episode, the Doctor asks an art museum curator (played spectacularly by an uncredited Bill Nighy) what he thinks about Van Gogh. The curator replies

“He transformed pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty.  Pain is easy to portray but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world… no one had ever done it before.  Perhaps no one ever will again.”

The Ale Boy’s Feast does the same for its characters, and in the process, for its readers. The journey into beauty through the Expanse, in all its mess and glory, is one of pain and joyful ecstasy. In his Auralia Thread, Jeffrey Overstreet has captured a piece of that journey and he holds it up to the light, like a window of colored glass for us to look through and catch a glimpse of the path that beckons us. The rest of the way, of course, is mystery.

The Ale Boy’s Feast, the final book of The Auralia Thread, will be released in bookstores and online on March 15.