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Book Review: Raven’s Ladder by Jeffrey Overstreet

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Raven's Ladder is the third book in the four-book Auralia Thread, a startlingly poetic, deeply spiritual fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors and Cyndere's Midnight.

The story dawns on a displaced people. The people of House Abascar, led by the young king Cal-Raven and his faithful guardsman Tabor Jan, have moved into a network of caves after the collapse of their house in a cataclysmic earthquake. Cal-Raven dreams of building New Abascar according to his childlike dreams, filling it with the beauty glimpsed in Auralia’s colors and following the footsteps of the Keeper, a strange forest creature he has come to revere almost as deity—but which remains mysterious and out of reach.

An unexpected encounter with the Keeper charges Cal-Raven’s faith and sends him on a journey to find the perfect settling place for his people. But even as he travels into the north, a menace from the ground threatens the caves, and Tabor Jan is forced to lead the people out. The refugees are discovered by Bel Amica’s beastman-hunting Captain Ryllion, and they have no choice but to accept the hospitality of House Bel Amica—a wealthy and exotic house which, under the influence of the follow-your-heart moon-spirit religion, has become a sort of Vanity Fair.

The Bel Amican heiress Cyndere and her faithful attendant Emeriene do what they can to care for the refugees, even as Tabor Jan and Cal-Raven fight to keep Abascar from losing its identity in Bel Amica’s seductive pleasures and the religion of the Seers. But theirs are not the only endeavours in the Expanse. The Seers are slowly spreading their power, and in the wastelands to the east, cursed Cent Regus beastmen are rising to new power.

There, in the ruins of House Cent Regus, Cal-Raven’s faith will sustain its greatest blow.

Raven’s Ladder is rich, powerful, and thought-provoking. Its prose is beautiful; its plot is riveting. This is not a stereotypical fantasy, wherein the good king and his beautiful followers battle the bad king and his beastly ones. In the world of the Expanse, beauty and beastliness mix, and it’s anyone’s guess which will rise to the top. Cal-Raven’s journey is one of faith that any believer will relate to, from the first flush of infatuation into discouragement as he is challenged to hold onto hope despite all odds. In the confusing tangle of emotions, exhaustion, and half-truths that is life, the beauty of art and the power of storytelling point the way back home.

I can still feel the atmosphere of this book weeks after reading it. House Bel Amica is stunningly rendered, exotic and exciting, with its hanging mirrors, ocean air, and rich food. It's a beautifully seductive place. But the religion underlying it, a message of following your heart, is also seductive, and we watch as this frighteningly familiar mantra (seen any Disney movies lately?) leaves the best of men wide open to deception and turns heroes into monsters.

The characters are extraordinarily human, from the fiery idealist Cyndere, who rebels against the excesses of her house in her desire to help the lost and accursed, to the awakening beastman Jordam, who thinks in metaphors and is beginning to lose his fur, to Prince Cal-Raven, who combines youthful arrogance with burdened leadership and passionate hope. Tabor Jan and Emeriene, who both function as the loyal friends of difficult visionaries, remain two of my favourite characters.

I have loved this series from the start, and it continues to get better. I reread Auralia’s Colors and Cyndere’s Midnight before opening Raven’s Ladder, and I will probably read all three again next year when the final installment comes out. I look forward to the fourth book even as I dread it, because this is a complex story with characters I’m coming to love, and I want to see all their stories treated fully. Bother the demands of the publishing industry that a book be relatively short.

It's been several weeks since I read an advance copy of Raven’s Ladder, and the story is still lingering with me. This is some of the best fantasy being written today.

A note to parents and young readers: Overstreet's books are very moral, but not simplistically so, and some scenes are gory. These are books for discerning readers.

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About Rachel Starr Thomson