Review: Advent by James Treadwell

Advent by James Treadwell
Advent by James Treadwell

James Treadwell
Atria, 2012

James Treadwell’s Advent was a book that had me seriously excited. I mean it’s a modern day retelling of Faust with a touch of classical fantasy “boy hero” tossed in for good measure so it seemed like a sure bet to be a fascinating blend of something new and something old. While Advent definitely succeeds on some levels by and large I felt it to be a bit too muddled to really take off. What feels like might be two fascinating and moving stories on their own do not quite mesh together into a cohesive and engaging whole.

Advent begins with a flashback to 1537 where the last magician Johannes Faust attempts to abscond with all the magic in the world. In present day Gavin Stokes has been sent away by his parents to live with his aunt all because he is the only one who can the strange woman who as a child he named Miss Grey. Gavin is a sad figure a young man who is on the outside because he can’t but help seeing something that every reasonable person in his life has told him is a figment of his imagination. Arriving at the estate known as Pendurra Gavin’s aunt is nowhere to be found. The story takes on an air of mystery as the story of Faust unfurls hand in hand with Gavin’s exploration of Pendurra and confusion behind his missing aunt.

While I enjoyed parts of Advent by and large I felt that the novel was rather unfocused. Whereas Gavin’s missing aunt and her whereabouts could have formed a significant hook to hang the plot on this never really feels like it is the case. Gavin, more or less abandoned by his parents and now almost completely on his own, never really seems to exhibit a drive to find his aunt. It really sort of felt like he was just going through the motions. As the mystery behind his missing Aunt Gwen unfolds the novel continues to hint at something rather dire and pretentious on the horizon. However that feeling never really feels like it manifests into something tangible and real. Mystical creatures Gavin encounters later in the novel hint at something big and amazing of something important but again those feelings and hints mostly come off as simple vagary.

There are moments however where Advent does succeed. Treadwell seems particularly adept at conveying Gavin’s loneliness. He is young but his status as an outsider gives him the feel of someone much older. As he imagines his mother having to slip away from his father to talk with him on the phone Gavin thinks “A couple of years ago, that kind of though would have upset him. Now he just let it go, sent it away with his parents. Once he’d realized they didn’t want to know about his unhappiness, he’d stopped caring much about theirs.” There is a palpable sadness to that line. Someone as young as Gavin should not be so jaded. Treadwell does a wonderful job of carrying that thread of loneliness and isolation throughout Gavin’s chapters. Had the novel stayed more focused on Gavin it might have worked a little bit better. However, as the novel progresses Treadwell introduces Horace, another young man, whose perspective comes from out of left field and whose late inclusion in the novel really clouds the novel’s narrative. Horace’s narrative, along with several other new points of view, introduced later in the novel definitely detract from the mirrored duality Faust and Gavin.

Advent is an interesting debut with potential that is marred by some needless complexity added late in the novel. Treadwell’s attempt to eschew typical fantasy conventions and instead blend aspects from various mythologies is admirable but comes off feeling muddled rather than invigorating. There is definitely magic in Advent and Treadwell’s mastery of language and tone is not in dispute however the novel’s slow pacing and tendency to jump between flashbacks and multiple points of view often softens the impact the novel might make on readers. Advent was a mixed bag for me but offers a lot for readers willing to but in the time to explore this thoughtful, if sometimes meandering, debut.


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