James Treadwell tells two linked stories in Advent, his first (and stunningly ambitious) novel. Fifteen-year-old Gavin’s family long ago lost patience regarding the lonely boy’s imaginary friend, Miss Grey. Gavin is sent off to spend a week with his equally oddball Auntie Gwen in Cornwall… except he arrives to find her missing. What Gavin discovers instead is ancient magic, terrifyingly seeping back into the world. The second story is that of sixteenth century Johannes Faust and his fall from knowledge into evil.
Although three-quarters of this book is set in the present day, where the reluctant Gavin must take up a classic hero’s journey, Advent’s sweeping historic scale and sense of the past infuse it throughout, rising to an unsettling crescendo that feels like the gut thrill of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Advent’s memorable characters include reassuring Hester Lightfoot, an academic who has her own issues with Miss Grey; motherless, welcoming Marina Urem; and best of all, Corbo, a croaking, menacing man-crow, and prickly Holly, a fantastical tree (what else?).
This book isn’t without flaws. In a couple places I suddenly woke from its spell and realized something hadn’t fit together—or perhaps Treadwell’s exuberantly mythical, magical writing became too obscure. And as much as I love historical fiction, I didn’t like being torpedoed back to the 16th century, preferring to stay with Gavin. I wondered, too, if kids were really up to this level of complexity. Upon reflection, I think yes. It’s adults who may struggle.