Former Oxford academic James Treadwell’s début is a fantasy novel with a strong appeal to a non-fantasy readership
“It’s a book about magic which tries to take magic seriously,” says author James Treadwell of his début novel, Advent. “It’s not a classic portal fantasy where you jump into another world. It’s a story about magic coming into our world and [the characters] being forced to confront it, deal with it and think about what it might mean.”
The central character grappling with the unexpected reappearance of magic is 15-year-old Gavin. He’s been having the usual teenage arguments with his parents but, unusually, these tensions are because Gavin keeps seeing and hearing things which—in his parents’ opinion—cannot possibly exist. Now he’s being sent to stay with his eccentric aunt in remote Cornwall.
The Cornish setting is an integral part of the story, and the image which inspired the novel first came to Treadwell when he was walking near the Helford River, close to where Advent is set: “I had the idea of someone like me, but younger, walking up the same path and seeing something coming down the path the other way which couldn’t possibly be real.”
But Treadwell was an English Literature undergraduate at Oxford at the time, and on an “academic track” which led to a DPhil and then a lectureship, so the idea remained just that for many years. It wasn’t until much later, during a break from academia to care for his young twin sons, that he decided he would try and turn the mental picture of a boy “who could see things that weren’t there” into a novel.
When Gavin arrives in Cornwall he discovers that, slowly and sometimes shockingly, magic is returning to our world, having been locked away for centuries by a great magus. As Gavin’s story unfolds and he begins to discover the nature of his quest, some familiar legendary characters appear (Faust; the prophetess Cassandra). It’s a beautifully written tale—the first in a trilogy—which in one sense feels like a return to old-fashioned storytelling, yet manages to be utterly fresh.
The central theme of magic in the real world is reminiscent of the classic fantasy series The Dark is Rising (a sequence of seven books first published in the late 1960s and 1970s), and it’s no surprise to hear Treadwell describe those books as “a huge part of my mental geography growing up—I loved them.”
Romance isn’t dead
Treadwell doesn’t think his former academic career—he was a Romanticist specialising in 18th and 19th-century writers—has had a direct influence on Advent, but he does acknowledge that spending so much of his adult life reading will have an effect on his own writing: “Any writer has an internal echo chamber, full of bits of phrases and words and language. Mine is full of slightly antiquated, pre-contemporary language, because that’s what I read for a long time.”
Treadwell says while he loved the idea of writing for teenagers when he started the novel, “I realised that these are not young adult sentences. My hand wouldn’t do it. I’m quite prolix. I write long sentences, I don’t write straightforward fast-moving plots . . . but I would love teenagers to read it, and I hope that they will.”
On the subject of readership, Treadwell has been very pleased with the reaction from early readers so far, many of whom would not describe themselves as conventional fantasy readers: “I’m really delighted. Not because I want to go out of the fantasy world, but because I want to bring other people into it.”
Advent is out now, published by Hodder.