- W.H. Auden, A Certain World
Phil has already reviewed Auralia's Colors for the blog. But I have read it at last, on his recommendation, and feel compelled to add my word of appreciation for a fine, fine creative work, informed by Christian truth. I am tentatively prepared to declare Jeffrey Overstreet the best Christian fantasist working today (Walter Wangerin is doing other things). Possibly even better than me (!).
What are the things that irritate me about contemporary fantasy generally, and Christian fantasy in particular?
First of all, contemporary fantasists tend to use words badly. They strive for the same effects as Tolkien or Lewis, but lack the rich erudition of those scholars. Their prose is stilted and artificial, their word choices poor.
Overstreet does not suffer from this problem. He uses words deftly, as Rembrandt used brushes and paint. Every description is vivid, every image apt. It's a delight to read his prose. I was reminded of Tolkien's use of Old English names to evoke unconscious meanings in the reader. Overstreet doesn't use that technique, but the whimsical names he gives to humans and beasts had a similar effect on me.
Contemporary fantasists tend to be derivative. When you read their work, you can easily detect a) which favorite writers they are trying to ape, and b) their political and social beliefs and prejudices.
Overstreet's work is as original as a new baby. He goes his own way, telling his own story. The only thing Auralia's Colors reminded me of was—in a general way—Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books, but the resemblance is superficial. Where Peake portrayed a grotesque world, barely concealing the disease under its skin, Overstreet creates a world full of wonder and beauty, its potential buried under the weight of destructive ideas.
I won't give a synopsis of the plot, except to say that it involves a country stripped of all color by law, where a miraculous young girl named Auralia, working in the wilderness, gathers and weaves together wonderful hues that remind the people of a better life and give them hope. It would have been easy to make the characters in this story black and white, but Overstreet's creations have the stamp of real life on them—in their various ways they all think they are doing good, and they often commit their greatest sins in full assurance of righteousness.
Some readers will be tempted to allegorize Auralia's Colors. This would be a mistake, I think. It needs to be allowed to speak on its own terms, to work secretly in our dreams.
Auralia's Colors (the first of a series) is a book to savor; a book to break your heart. Not for young children (a little too intense), but highly recommended for anyone older.