Let the Little Children Come to Me: A Review of Jeffrey Overstreet’s The Ale Boy’s Feast
If there’s no feast for this appetite
No reason in nursery rhymes
Why can’t I shake this great and glorious lie?
And if there’s no dawn beyond this dark
No secret stair to climb
Where did I learn the song that shakes the sky?
—Partayn’s Song, The Ale Boy’s Feast
I can’t shake the feeling that we need to do something different here, something different from the usual work of a review—you, the reader, looking for insight on the fourth and last novel in Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia Thread, and me trying to talk about what it all means and why you should find it important. The Ale Boy’s Feast would have us read a different way, to be more bent on mystery and joy than on dissection and cold analysis, to be focused not simply on what it does but what it is.
The story so far: the Auralia Thread, the series that The Ale Boy’s Feast bookends, begins with the collapse of the city of Abascar: undermined—literally—by a hollow, colorless foundation. And from there we follow Abascar’s wilderness journey, while it weathers treachery, betrayal, and exhaustion. Eventually it stumbles out of the reach of beast men and deathweed to make a home in Bel Amica. But Bel Amica is in its own kind of hedonistic captivity.
Abascar’s captivity in Bel Amica, a city of moon worshippers and pleasure seekers, feels an awful lot like Israel’s captivity in Babylon. We are even left with the psalmic itch, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” And indeed, there’s more singing, I notice, as Abascar gets on the road again—curious, since the road is not an easy one. Betrayal and death are on that road, too. “You don’t even know where you’re going,” says a petulant Bel Amican, Petch, of the Ale Boy.
“No,” he responds candidly. “I don’t. But I do know that this is the way.”
The busybody controller in all of us shudders.
A little time in the wilderness does Abascar good. Only after they shed their soulless rites, strong walls, and need to know do they find freedom. But not everyone finds that narrow road; some would sooner march to a hell they know than a heaven they don’t.
One of the enduring mysteries of the novels prior to The Ale Boy’s Feast is what happened to House Jenta, the fourth house descended from the legendary Tammos Raak. It’s variously described as a house of learning, magic, and wisdom, and its captivity is the missing piece of the Expanse’s puzzle. If House Cent Regus succumbed to power and strength, Bel Amica to pleasure and possession, Abascar—for a time—to colorless and empty tradition, then House Jenta is shattered on the rocky shores of intellectual hubris.
In a final solution of frustration, the mages of House Jenta rid themselves of their quarrelsome people and lock themselves up in their school—a place of isolation, where mages wallow in dissatisfaction and shame. There is no truth, they say. All argument is distraction. “This world’s a whore, all soaked in perfumes,” says Ryp ben Fray to his brother Schaar, “and you’re so easily seduced.” House Jenta grasps the last rung of Nietzschean logic. And so it watches in vanity as the world rots and spoils.
It’s a captivity born out of fracture, fragmentation, and pride, driven by the need to possess, to understand, and to control. The malaise of modernity comes alive in The Ale Boy’s Feast in a way that should stagger the most reflective of modernity’s children—that is, every one of us. A poison infects all of the houses. It enslaves them. And—yes—the Seers, those enigmatic and spiteful servants of the moon, work to expedite that poison. But the poison’s source is not their making. They can make nothing except by rearranging and reassembling what mystery has provided. They fan flames but start no fires. And their power is revealed, in the end, to have been far less than we ever imagined. A one-eyed thief and hateful betrayer burn the Seer’s rotting husks.
The collapse of House Jenta is a final inversion, the foolish things of the world confounding the wise. Shouldn’t it have been the wise things, the Jenta mages, who were the first to possess lost city of Inius Throan? Schaar ben Fray certainly thinks so, growling at Warney when he turns the key to a city “that was to be the king’s honor.” The king ignores it. Thieves and beggars, after all, are feasting at the king’s table while mages trapped in paralytic pondering are pitching themselves from the tops of stone towers. One Jenta mage, we learn, even beat them there. He discovered the secret of the Expanse, the four houses, and the source of the corruption. And what he found was such an utter betrayal, such a terrible inversion of all the things he’d come to value, that he walked away in disgust. His disillusionment is a cloud that dispels hope, and in his passing, you can almost hear the Northchildren groan, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?”
But children and thieves, just like fishermen, don’t lose faith. I’ve no doubt that Overstreet privately delights that all the saviors of the story are children. Kings and mages stumble along, faithless and forgotten, while Auralia and the Ale Boy inspire hope, make beauty, and rescue the lost. Salvation upends our expectations, and only the childlike seem to survive, the folks who never put too much stock or comfort in the way things seemed to them. The even more mysterious Northchildren, one time present, then keeping distant, are unpredictable, like breath of wind. The river whose streams make glad the Expanse is a mystery too. We learn a great deal about the curse, but the cure slips through our fingers. It happens. It’s a story we could tell. But its full meaning? Its true source? That’s a story beyond the telling.
Postmodern carcasses are strewn across the battleground of the Expanse, but ultimately the book is not combative. The didactic spats that Overstreet’s characters occasionally fight are not the story’s final tone. They’re a part of the story, sure, but they don’t pretend to be the whole. Schaar ben Fray’s mission, to find knowledge powerful enough to end the curse, turns out to be ironic. Knowledge without beauty, without love, is vain. So a breath later, when ben Fray reprimands himself that “beauty is safer at a distance,” we know the kind of knowledge he means. It’s a knowledge with power, to be sure, but not the kind that puts an end to curses. More than two hundred pages later, King Cal-raven responds, “Beauty is leading us home.” In frustration, Schaar ben Fray reprimands him, “It saddens me that you cannot imagine a life without someone to serve.” Quietly, we imagine, Cal-raven says, “It saddens me that you think joy comes any other way.”
The stories are conspicuously short on answers in the end. The conclusion’s meaning is unclear, though we’re meant to believe it’s something good. This might be the genius of the Auralia Thread. These are stories about means, not ends, in a time when ends come fast and easy. We have strategic plans and five-year visions, lobbies to make and culture to transform, but—if truth be told—we don’t really know where we’re going. Like Tammos Raak, we’ve set the children free but failed to captivate them with a vision. What we need are more sublime delusions, more riddles and play and prophecy. Salvation never comes the way we expect it. Best to stay at play until it does, so on that day, we manage to hear “let the little children come to me” because “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Robert Joustra is an editor and researcher at Cardus, where he works on Comment magazine. He does lots of political and academic stuff but suspects fantasy is more important.