Series: The Advent trilogy
Author: James Treadwell
Published: First published 02 February 2012; this edition published 03 July 2012
Publisher: Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Genre: YA, fantasy, mythology
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
In Advent, two tales of magic intertwine and converge.
In 1537, Johan Faust, the most powerful magician of his age, seeks immortality. Humanity has scorned magic in favour of science and religion, and Faust believes that, to save the world from this error, he cannot die. He leaves behind a mysterious woman he once loved, a woman who gave him a ring that contains all the magic in the world.
In the present day, 15-year-old Gavin Stokes takes a train from London to stay with his aunt in the countryside. He was suspended from school after telling his guidance counsellor what his parents are sick of hearing – that he sees things no one else does, like the ghostly woman he calls Miss Grey, who has been appearing to him throughout his life. Gavin used to find Miss Grey’s presence comforting, but his mother and domineering father insist that such things are impossible, implying that he’s either stupid, lying or insane. Unable to reconcile his own reality with the one the world forces upon him, Gavin is lonely and deeply unhappy.
His aunt Gwen has always been more understanding, but when Gavin arrives at her cottage on the ancient Pendurra estate, he cannot find her, or any evidence of where she may have gone. While trying to track her down, he finds that Pendurra is a mysterious place both liberating and terrifying. Gavin meets other people who have experienced magic, making it seem as if he has been simply been living in the wrong place, with the wrong people. But Pendurra is also a place where magic is leaking back into the world after being trapped for centuries, and something cruel and dangerous is coming with it.
The marketing copy for Advent promises a “spellbinding return to old-fashioned storytelling”, and for once the blurb writers are not exaggerating. Or at least not very much. Advent is rich with old, wild magic that infuses a classic coming-of-age story entwined with mythology. The writing is wonderful and the settings include an English forest in winter and an ancient mansion that looks like it hasn’t aged in centuries. The characters are mysterious and varied, and many seem to carry the depth and weight of personal histories that would make good stories on their own. Reading it is a bit like wandering through a vault full of treasure chests and only being able to open a few, and Advent reminded me a lot of some of the YA novels I loved as a kid.
As a hurt, withdrawn teenager, Gavin is what first drew me into the story. I identified with his loneliness and insecurity, and sympathised with the way his reality is considered unacceptable by everyone in his life:
His dreams were a whirl of turbid darkness lit by fire, full of prophetic voices clamouring in alien speech. He was fourteen and miserable. The expensive school did its work and he at least knew that Miss Grey should not exist, that she was impossible, that the fact that he kept on seeing her was like an error in a calculation, a tear in the canvas of a painting, a misprint. He understood that if he tried to explain his life to anyone, the only thing they’d be able to think was that there was something seriously wrong with him. But because it had always been there, it was impossible for him to imagine how it was wrong.
Because of the way people treat him, Gavin has “spent most of the last four years desperately wanting to be left alone”. At one point in the novel, he tries to make polite conversation but fails because “he had no practice at it. He’d spent the past couple of years learning to stop conversations, not start them”.
His parents tend to treat him with disappointment, annoyance or anger. “My mum and dad don’t like me much. Especially Dad” Gavin says. His father is a mean, hateful man. He’s not physically abusive, but he’s an asshole. His parents clearly have a troubled marriage, but this is no longer something Gavin worries about: “Once he’d realised they didn’t want to know about his unhappiness, he’d stopped caring much about theirs.”
For the first half of the novel I kept wanting to give Gavin a hug. It’s comforting to find that things are better for him at Pendurra, especially when he meets Marina, the owner’s 13-year-old daughter. Marina is weirdly innocent and naive. She’s not stupid or completely uneducated, but she seems to know almost nothing about the world outside Pendurra. She often says such odd things that Gavin stops to check if she’s being sarcastic, although I doubt that Marina even knows what sarcasm is. She’s never learned how to be mean, and she’s always straightforward and honest. She has never heard swearwords, and asks Gavin for a definition every time he uses one.
Marina’s innocence makes her the perfect companion for Gavin. She doesn’t treat him with the “contempt, or anxiety, or bewilderment” he’s learned to expect from people. If he tells her something that seems strange or impossible, she is curious even when skeptical, and in fact has her own experiences with magic. Gavin has become so used to guarding his words for fear of being “dismissed, or ignored, or even laughed at” that he’s “lost the power to say what he meant”. But with Marina, he can just be honest; a unique experience for him.
Gavin sometimes finds Marina’s naiveté frustrating, but mostly their budding friendship offers him some solace – he finally knows that he’s not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with him. And Pendurra itself is a life-changing place. The massive house is one of those incredible fictional spaces that you long to visit. It’s centuries old and has never been modernised – there is no electricity and no modern plumbing. It’s structure is all in plain, impressive sight – “great slabs of swelling wood”, “bare patches of grey stone”, “curves of iron”. Nothing is smooth and anonymous; everything is rough and unique. Every door is made of heavy, knotted wood, with every nail visible and slightly different from all the others. It is stunningly, unbelievably old “with that sense of foreignness, forgottenness, that he’d caught as a smell the moment he’d stepped inside; old like the sounds of a dead language”. Gavin emphasises that this is not like some boring museum though – it’s more like another world entirely.
Despite its age, Pendurra is in excellent condition thanks to the magic leaking into the area. The theory of magic in the novel (or at least Faust’s theory) is that it is “the commerce and the interchange” between mankind and God’s “generative spirit”. This is pantheistic rather than religious. Faust deplores monotheistic religion, which sees creation as fallen and corrupt, and views God as nothing but a talented architect. In his view, God is contained within his creation, rather than existing as a separate entity, and some humans have the power to communicate with and manipulate this spirit, although this always comes at a cost. The novel is entitled ‘Advent’ because Advent is about the second-coming; here (I assume) the return of magic is synonymous with the return of God.
I’m a tad confused about how exactly magic works though, and this was my main problem with the novel. I like the idea that magic is an interaction with God’s spirit, which is basically a life spirit. But then how is it that Faust’s ring contains all the magic in the world? Does this mean God is trapped inside that ring? How is that possible? And how has the world survived with this spirit trapped in one tiny location? Or is it that the world has been dying slowly ever since the ring’s creation, and deteriorated further when Faust trapped the ring in a magically sealed box? It could also be argued that magic is a form of knowledge, but how does that explain the existence of some of the creatures that begin to emerge as the leak gets worse? These concerns aren’t irreconcilable, and I found them tolerable while I was reading, but I would have preferred a more thorough explanation. The novel is set up for a sequel, so hopefully there is more to be discovered.
Another hitch is the change in narrative that happens about halfway through. For the first half, the story is told from two POVs – Gavin’s and Faust’s, with Faust’s story mostly told in reverse. Then we start getting new POVs and a series of flashbacks. After seeing everything from either Gavin or Faust’s perspective, these new narrators made the story feel fragmented and I wondered if there wasn’t a more elegant way to tell it.
It’s also quite slow. At first I liked this – you’re immersed in the rich detail of an unfolding story that’s worth savouring. After a while though, it does get a bit tiring and you might start to wonder when the plot is going to get going. No one knows what happened to Gwen, but there’s no real rush to find out. Gavin does a little investigating that happens mostly by accident. There’s a lot of sorcery in Faust’s narrative, but it’s a long time before you see any in Gavin’s. For me this was just a niggle, but I imagine that YA fans who enjoy the genre for its quick reads will get bored.
In my opinion though, Advent is one of the best kinds of YA. It doesn’t feel dumbed down or glossed over in any way. It also has, as promised, some “spellbinding… old-fashioned storytelling”, including an indescribable sense of escaping into other worlds that it seems I can only find in a few precious YA novels (adults’ novels just don’t achieve quite the same effect). Advent is not without its flaws so I had to give it a rather than an 8, but it’s the kind of book that immerses me in a world I want to disappear into.