Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: The Ale Boy's Feast

Since this is book 4 of 4 in a series, I don't want to give too much away. But a few observations: This series is so unique it needs a new word for it (or we need to recover the original value of the word "unique"!). Most fantasy novels, you pretty much know what you're going to get, thanks to the "Ancestor" Tolkien founding the field and setting the rules that others riff on. Tad Williams has specifically noted that many of his plot points are specifically there to work out issues he had with Tolkien's series, both references and modifications. But the basic shape of the plot and the point of the writing all seems to be the same with carying levels of detail: to tell a story exploring a new world with many things different but most things the same as Tolkien's vision.

Because it's fantasy, and because he too follows a few of Tolkien's conventions, it would be easy to put Jeffrey Overstreet's books in with the rest, and I approached the series with those assumption, but it just doesn't fit. There's something distinctly different about Overstreet's vision. I've noted before how Overstreet writes cinematically: it starts from art, color, and image rather than being a typical campfire-type of story. In particular, in this closing book there's some metaphors about what art does and what it IS that are much deeper than any other fantasy novel, with the possible exception of Tolkien. It has a satisfying narrative conclusion; in fact, it follows the pattern of having multiple "endings" that unfold when the expected ending isn't enough. You see things in the conclusion that Tolkien himself didn't put in his trilogy, things that I always wished Tolkien would do. But the "satisfaction" of the ending, though real, isn't the point. Overstreet leaves just enough threads unfinished that it is not neatly packed up, but rather tantalizingly open, resolved yet still alive. Anyone who complains about a lack of resolution in this book, honestly, hasn't read the earlier books closely enough. (I feel the same way about LOST.)

I think one of the reason most fantasy authors avoid making their novels about "real" things like art and faith is that their writing honestly isn't up to it. Overstreet's writing supports his main point because it is up to the task. It is itself artistic and so the book can be about art. Lapidary phrases are scattered throughout the book like gems on the shore, turning up when you least expect it.

Other things I'm happy to say are in this book: a funny (to me, I've got a bit of a twisted sense of humor, and I thought the most evil characters were kind of darkly funny at first) Thomas Kinkaid reference; some really horrific scenes with the evil characters; a really solid resolution of the central mystery about the ancestor and the houses; a meaningful philosophical exchange between a student and his mentor about what's real and what's not near the end; and a fascinating underground geography that you can only do in a novel like this.

I realized near the end of this: I'm going to have to read it all again. Thanks Jeffrey for a wonderful and unique series.

And a final word: I miss the missing "scarjo." I know, I know it's still there, but the original term just seems more right to me. A matter of taste.

A final final word: are there any openings for imityriologists?

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