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Book Review: The Ale Boy’s Feast by Jeffrey Overstreet

Genre: Literary Fantasy, Christian Fantasy, Quest Fantasy
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Publication Date: March 15, 2011
ISBN-10: 1400074681
ISBN-13: 978-1400074686
Author Website: Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet concludes the four part Auralia Thread with The Ale Boy’s Feast, a mythic allegory of depth and vivid imagery.

As the story opens, the world is dying. Though the beastmen of Cent Regus have been routed, the Seers of Bel Amica are still powerful and poisoning the world with their moon-worship, addictive potions, and the land-consuming Deathweed. The firewalking ale boy (also known as “Rescue”), near dead on the river below the Cent Regus ruins, is awakened along with many others of the scattered House Abascar by the enigmatic-but-always-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time cured beastman Jordam. The ale boy must lead them upstream through dangers and dark to find a way to deliverance. Meanwhile, Milora’s memory begins to return as she and some of the remnants of Abascar make their way toward the once-hidden city of Inius Throan. Cal-raven, king of all that was Abascar, has lost faith in the creature he called the Keeper and must journey alone to the legendary city. Finally Scharr Ben Fray, stonemaster and Cal-raven’s tutor, does all he can to ensure that history of the Expanse is validated and a New Abascar will rise to save the world. Each character story is woven together loosely, slowly tightening as the plot unfolds to become the beautiful tapestry first begun by Auralia three books ago.

Overstreet’s writing style is different, difficult, and demanding. One reviewer called him a “literary impressionist”. As Van Gogh, Manet and Cassat did with paints, Overstreet does with words. Overstreet’s scenes are vivid with color but at the edges they begin to blur. It is as if Overstreet wants our imagination to be overwhelmed by the scenery and emotion. He then lets the action unfold with only sparse detail. Dialogue requires careful reading, as Overstreet rarely gets into the mindset behind words, preferring to let the reader make what they will of what the character says. It is the “show, don’t tell” style of writing taken to the extreme. Readers are asked to involve all of their heart and mind in the novel. Overstreet doesn’t explain, he merely tells, asking the reader to bend their mind to solving the riddle of character actions, and evoking the most powerful of emotions with dramatic settings and elegiac metaphors and similes. Reading The Ale Boy’s Feast is like reading poetry, where the beauty of the work is not just in its content but its construction too. Intellect and emotion must come together for a full understanding of the novel, or else the reader is left bereft.

The plot, too, is beautiful in its separate depictions of the culmination of a journey. From the ale boy’s up from the dark motif, to King Cal-raven’s light-dawning realization, to Milora’s almost prosaic remembering, and the supporting characters personal losses and toils, each journey highlights some facet of the jewel that is life’s long passage. Though each life is beautiful, it is incomplete unless bolstered by others and no one succeeds at finding Inius Throan alone.

Christians will see allegory of the Christian life in The Ale Boy’s Feast, as well as in some of the events in the story as it winds towards its culmination. For instance, feast of the title might be an analogue for the Last Supper or communion sacrament. The ending with its block of stone that must be pass through might be either a passage from life into death. Inius Throan itself hints at the Book of Revelation’s New Jerusalem but without fulfilling its promise. But unlike C. S. Lewis’ or John Bunyan’s direct approach, Overstreet layers his allegory in many levels, so that careful reading is required to see all of the connections between Christianity and the world of the Expanse. This makes the work approachable and even worthwhile reading for those outside that religion, though they may wonder at some of the culminating events as they won’t find an epic battle or any dragon-slaying here.

Overstreet’s characters are wonderfully complex. They have an intricacy of emotions and motivations, sometimes in direct opposition both within themselves and externally. Character actions are not predictable, even for the most venerable of them.

The Ale Boy’s Feast is a superb novel, if a tad difficult to read. Overstreet really forces you to read his words carefully, unable to simply skim through or with half a mind to the words. It’s a prose form of Impressionism framed in a fantasy milieu. There are amazing depths that require a careful reading of the work. I highly recommend The Ale Boy’s Feast for fans of Patricia McKillip or Guy Gavriel Kay.