Story. That’s why people watch the Olympics. It’s certainly not the finer points of curling technique or the joy of seeing the best athletes in the world excel at doing what so many of us try to do better every time we strap rifles to our backs, slip on our skis, and head out into the hills for a causal afternoon of recreational alpine snipering.
We watch to see the grandson of WWII veteran drape his grandfather’s military burial flag over victorious shoulders as he celebrates gold. We cheer for the figure skater who overcame all odds to return to the ice for one more try for a first medal before retirement. We marvel at the skier who achieves heights none before have. We weep with the snowboarder seeking redemption for past bravado whose chance melts like the snow that slid her into disqualification.
We celebrate dreams come true and mourn those that don’t. We need their stories. It is story that informs our humanity and gives context to ebb and flow of life.
But sometimes rather than discovering story, we are deceived by mirage. All the trappings of story are laid before us, but the closer we get, the more its substance unravels, and we are left feeling hollow.
Such a tale was Avatar. A grandiose, colorful candy shell – with little inside. Imaginative and yet somehow uncreative. It was pure entertainment – a predictable pleasure delivered in a predictable manner.
I did like Avatar and enjoyed the experience it offered. It was spectacle, and I was entertained. It was a visual feast as promised, but a feast of little more than cinemagraphic cotton candy. In the end, I left the theater hungry (and not from consuming too little popcorn). I left feeling like I could have been changed. I left wanting to have been changed. (I also left the theater with a bladder as tired, sad, and bloated as its closing theme song.) I wanted real story, not recycled characters and cliched plot points covered in impressive technology and slick imagery.
Telling a meaningful story involves risk. And many aren’t willing, or able, to take on such risk artistically – risk that the story exposes the heart of the teller, risk that the market won’t respond and will thereby close doors to future creative opportunities. But with little risk comes little reward. (Unless the reward hoped for is little more than heaps of cash. Entertainment can yield lots of that.)
What I wanted from Avatar was risky storytelling: a bold attempt to challenge our preconceptions about life and existence, to leave us wondering if the worldview we held complete still has room to grow. If our eyes can see things afresh. If compassion can increase and love deepen as our humanity is filled up with the good, true, and beautiful.
And when you find a story like that you tell the world. You get on your Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Google Buzz, Bebo, Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress, Orkut, Jaiku, Friendster, Ning, or whatever and tell everyone. Whether it’s a movie, band, TV show, poem, or short story.
Or in this case, a novel. I’d never waited in angst for a book to be published before now.
Having been one of the first to discover the Harry Potter series after they were all already released, I’ve never felt that nervous energy of unquenchable anticipation. My fingernails remained neatly clipped, not chewed to stumps, as I flew through books 1-7 without pause or thought to what it was like to have a year roll by between volumes.
Until a few months ago.
It’s the first book, or the Red Strand, in a series called The Auralia Thread that was initially published in 2007 by WaterBrook Press.
Set in another time, in another world, the people of the Expanse have a long history they trace back to a single ancestral group of children, who, led by a Mosaic patriarch, escaped a dangerous wilderness to settle a new land. Generations passed and the people scattered and separated into four houses, each with its own distinct and complicated lore. Auralia’s Colors throws us headlong into the contemporary trials of House Abascar when a young girl, orphaned at birth and of unknown ancestry, brings new, life-giving color to a drab and dying people.
Try to remember the last time you read a fantasy novel, and, if you can, all the ones before that. (Which might bring most of you to a grand total of three, and us geeks and nerds to a total of near 22 or more.) Of those, how many were about men with weapons and kingdoms to defend against irredeemable evil and save weak womenfolk from sure destruction? Black and white stories with no room for gray – or color?
Once it became clear that our protagonist, Auralia, was a little girl enamored with colors, mystery, and the seeing of things unseen, I was hooked. In all my previous fantastical readings I’d never encountered such a premise, though some might be out there. At first I was intrigued, stepping cautiously – if not a little skeptically – over the pages and wondering where this tale was taking me. But like that of all master craftsmen of language, Overstreet’s storytelling pulled me deeper and deeper into this vivid world both rich with – and yet deprived of – color, song, creation, and all that their presence brings.
I burned through the book like a dragon puffing ragweed rolled in magic paper.
Fortunately I didn’t have to wait at all to start the second installment, the Blue Strand, Cyndere’s Midnight. It was strategically positioned in my bag so when I inserted a finished Auralia’s Colors, I could remove an untouched Cyndere’s Midnight. Really, the only way I could’ve shortened that lag time would have been to glue one book to the other.
As much as I was enchanted by Auralia and the story Overstreet wove in her pages, I was changed by Cyndere’s Midnight, a story of loss and redemption. Of finding out what makes one human, and what shreds one’s humanity. A story that could not let me be, but pushed me to become something better. One that probed my heart as I found pieces of myself – the good and the wretched – in these characters. Their journey became my journey, their hopes and sorrows mine.
So, you can imagine the vacuous hole left in me when I closed its cover and had no other book in my bag to pull out. I sat on the train filled with questions, gawking bewildered at the route map like a first-time tourist because there was nowhere else to stare, searching for answers with such ferocity that if I’d been the conductor we’d have skipped every stop until the track ran out.
And so I waited, feeling for the first time that reader’s anxiety common to many but alien to me. I waited 46 days that seemed like one point two five score and four weeks.
The characters’ stories have yet to fully enfold, but this one has a happy ending.
Raven’s Ladder, the Gold Strand and third book in the series is finally available. And it is every bit as engaging, imaginative and transforming as its predecessors. While I long to feel the resolution of this transformational, expertly-crafted story, part of me hopes the series will never end.
Because while there will always be, in our lives and in our culture, an important space and time for entertainment – for movies like Avatar – we need story. And when we’ve found it, we cling to it. We share it. We relive it over and over, and are changed by it. We let its colors saturate our lives.
You can hear Jeffrey Overstreet himself speak about the need for good stories at this year’s IAM Encounter, March 4-6 in downtown Manhattan. Overstreet will be speaking on Saturday afternoon, and single-day tickets are available.