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 movies, 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 writing a typical introductory book, following fantasy conventions, Overstreet surprises the reader at every turn. So many fantasy works have a single, fatal flaw: they are thin shadows of the greater works that inspired them. 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 most hardened criminals of her kingdom. Dazzled by the natural 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 complacency of everyone from ale boy to king. Her brief presence will come to challenge everyone in the Expanse, from the heir to Abascar’s throne, to House Bel Amica’s lauded seers, to the curse-ridden beastmen of House Cent Regus.
Fantasy tends toward heavy-handed symbolism, but in the Auralia Thread, Overstreet pushes his readers to decipher its symbols without the aid of exposition. It’s the kind of deft writing that leads the reader through a Socratic experience. Overstreet’s beastmen of Cent Regus, for example, would be simple knockoffs of Tolkein’s orcs in any other series, a clearly evil group of enemies who may justifiably be destroyed by triumphant heroes. Instead, Overstreet asks us if we should be rooting for their redemption, not their destruction.
Jeffrey Overstreet writes like Van Gogh painted. I had the opportunity to see some of Van Gogh’s finest works 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. I wasn’t in a museum, I was outside looking up at the stars. 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. Those worlds become hard to resist.
Overstreet is a literary impressionist, and his understated yet vivid narrative style overwhelms the imagination. He reveals the Expanse, a vaguely medieval world teeming with unusual fantasy elements, as a complex world not through an overindulgence in description, but through sharp, clear narrative that doesn’t waste an ounce of emotional impact. Overstreet’s gift is in 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 Auralia Thread does more than just tell a great story. The journey into beauty through the Expanse, in all its mess and glory, is one of pain and joyful ecstasy, both alien and yet utterly familiar. In these four books, Jeffrey Overstreet has captured a piece of that all-too-familiar journey toward beauty. Just as Auralia would, 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.