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Wednesday
Jul042012

Advent by James Treadwell

Published by Atria on July 3, 2012 

I'm not usually a fan of novels that feature witches and mermaids -- they just aren't my thing -- but I picked up Advent because it purported to have literary merit.  The plot creatively joins two legendary figures -- the prophetess Cassandra of Greek mythology and the 16th century Faust -- and brings them both into the present, threatening the modern age of reason with a return of dark magic and evil spirits.  In the end, despite James Treadwell's graceful writing style, I just didn't care.

Young Gavin Stokes has an imaginary friend named Miss Grey.  To Gavin, Miss Grey is far from imaginary -- she is annoyingly real and has gotten him kicked out of school.  When Gavin's parents send him off to spend some time with his aunt, Gwen Clifton, Gavin encounters Gwen's neighbor, the eccentric Hester Lightfoot, on the train.  Arriving at his destination, Aunt Gwen is nowhere to be found, but Gavin meets a thirteen-year-old named Marina who, like Gavin, sees people who aren't really there.  It turns out that Heather has the same gift.  Marina's friend from across the river, Horace Jia, has seen the missing Gwen but he's not about to tell any adults where she is.  Trouble begins when Marina and Gavin go searching for Gwen and find something that's not quite the Gwen of Gavin's fond memories.

Meanwhile, in 1537, the world's greatest magus, Johannes Faust, acting on a whim, asks his spirit servant to show him the most beautiful woman of all time.  To his surprise, it is another woman, Cassandra, standing behind Helen of Troy, who captures his attention.  Cassandra gives Faust a gift that turns out to be a curse.

The cast having been assembled, Gavin has a series of frightening supernatural encounters before he partially comes of age (he only vaguely understands his linkage to another legendary figure with a similar name) and confronts Faust, who is now in a 20th century guise.  The transition between the two stories takes place in an oddly expository chapter positioned midway through the novel.

The novel's structure is strange.  Faust's story alternates with Gavin's.  That's not a problem, but Faust's story begins at the end and works it way back to the beginning for reasons that are unclear.  I'm not bothered by nonlinear structures if they serve a purpose but I'm not sure that this one does.  After the stories join they often seem muddled.

Treadwell's writing style is exceptional.  His evocative prose brings the night alive, creates a strong sense of place, and is generally a joy to read.  The characters in Advent (as you might expect from people who are touched by the supernatural) are quirky and eccentric and often a bit rattled, characteristics that make them interesting even if they never seem fully developed.

Given the skill with which the story is told, why am I not a fan of Advent?  Ultimately, Advent left me unmoved.  Faust's story is tragic by nature yet I felt no compassion for the unfortunate character.  Gavin and Marina undergo harrowing experiences yet I did not share their terror.  In short, I felt no connection to the story or its characters.  The novel did not absorb me, did not trigger my willingness to suspend disbelief.  The ending struck me as silly.  Perhaps diehard fans of the genre will appreciate this novel more than I did, but readers who don't make a point of seeking out supernatural fiction will probably not want to pick up Advent.

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