James Treadwell’s 2012 novel, the first in a trilogy, sets up the magical, dark narrative of Gavin Stokes, a boy of 15 whose birth coincides with the re-emergence of magic in a world that has long been without it. Gavin’s story opens on our young protagonist as he heads to visit his crazy Aunt Gwen, the only one to ever believe Gavin’s stories about his imaginary friend, Miss Grey. Gwen lives next to a large estate called Pendurra, and she serves as the housekeeper there. However, when Gavin arrives at Gwen’s house (after a strange and discomfiting trip on the train in which he meets an odd woman named Hester), he finds the quaint abode empty, and so is forced to go to Pendurra to look for her. There, he meets a peculiar bunch of characters and finds himself in a situation that quickly moves from odd to supernatural.
But Treadwell doesn’t stop with Gavin’s story; the author carefully weaves in another narrative, that of the historic and literary figure of Johannes Faust, that is meant to have a direct bearing on the primary narrative. And this is actually the point where my first criticism of Advent comes in. The way the two narratives are set up is based on a system of reader knowledge or lack thereof. We’re plunged right in at the end of the Faust narrative and each subsequent chapter moves back one space, so that by about 2/3rds of the way through the novel, we have pretty much the whole story. It functions on the reader seeing this enigmatic event in the first chapter and thinking, “Hey, but…wait, what? I don’t get it. More, please.” Gavin’s story, on the other hand, is supposed to function as the opposite of this; his life and why he’s heading to his aunt’s house are pretty straightforwardly delineated, and, at least right away, the weird balance between these narratives seems to work. Unfortunately, it becomes apparent throughout the course of the book that Gavin’s narrative is actually based almost entirely on those enigmatic moments (Strange references that we’re supposed to trust will be revealed later, Actions or events that we take on faith to mean something, Characters introduced who drop cryptic lines and disappear–you get my drift.), and because there ultimately isn’t really a strong plot to tide us over until we get some of those answers, the whole novel feels like it’s constructed entirely out of foreshadowing. And because the entire Faust plot is primarily set up as a supplement/generator of the main plot, it, too, tends to feel incomplete in a bad way. For me, the Faust plot was the coolest part; Treadwell does a neat job moving through the layers of history and literature in order to pick out the stuff he wants to use for his novel. I wanted much more of that. In fact, I wanted much more of that in place of the Gavin narrative.
To take the critique a step further, there seems to be a weird lack of clarity with Gavin’s age/maturity level. There are, in my mind, two options here:
1. Gavin is 15 and has the maturity level of a 15-year old. I’m cool with this option because, hey, the book seems like it would be tons of fun to read as a 15-year old. However, it becomes a little problematic in that Treadwell tends to fall into the standard us vs. them cliché where the kids are the us and the parents are the them, the people who just don’t understand and can’t be trusted. Yeah, it’s cliché, and that’s never awesome, but it really becomes problematic when Treadwell doesn’t really give us a whole lot of adults who won’t understand. Sure, we get evil adults who are doing evil things with their evil magics and evil intents, but they definitely understand the supernatural stuff Gavin is going through because, hey, evil magics. Also, Gavin being a through-and-through 15-year old doesn’t really square with the strange romantic relationship with the 13 year old (yeah, 13. Ummm, that’s weird, right?) that is pretty much explicitly stated and set up. And, finally, if Gavin is in some part a 15-year old in order to appeal to that young readership, which solves some of the emotional/maturity problems I’ll bring up in the next paragraph, I have a hard time buying that those kids are going to be cool reading a book that drops words like “vertiginous” and “susurrus” like candy at a parade.
2. Gavin is a 15-year old with the maturity of a much, much older human. I’m cool with this option, too, because it explains some of the earlier problems I mentioned and works well with certain…reincarnative aspects of the novel (that’s as spoilery as I’ll be, promise), but it doesn’t really square when you get to the multiple points throughout the novel where Gavin has to be a kid, a still-emotionally-developing kid who is immature and young, for things to work and make sense. One major issue I had with the book is that Gavin does the sort of annoying thing where every other page he seems to have a revelatory moment. You know the kind I mean–something like, “And Gavin suddenty realized X” or “All at once it became clear to Gavin that he’d been thinking about her wrong this whole time.” This gets old after a bit, but it can really only make sense (although, I’ll hate it; I’ll just understand why it’s happening) if Gavin is that little kid. I remember as a kid feeling like I had the world totally pegged down one moment and then completely changing my mind the next moment when I discovered something totally inane like, “Oh, hey, people sometimes smile when they’re happy.” These moments (none of them as ridiculous as my example) are everywhere in the novel, but they can only be logic-ed away by Gavin being that young kid in a young kid’s body.
At the end of the day, I was interested by the structure of Treadwell’s novel and especially interested in this idea of combating the escapism of standard (urban) fantasy with the idea that things might be really, really terrifying if magic actually existed. But I was frustrated by the lack of precision with which Gavin’s character was dealt, and I was honestly kind of bored by most of the novel while I waited to figure out what the heck those cryptic statements I read on page 14 meant.
Advent gets two slices of lasagna from me.