What does a devilish summoning ritual, a sleepy little British town and the Hadron collider all have to in common?
Well, according to John Connolly's first book for kids, they're all going to contribute to the impending end of the world, aka the invasion of demon armies from Hell. "The Gates: A Novel" aims to be a quirky fantasy story with Porsche-driving demons, an evil undead bishop and a likably eccentric preteen hero, but Connolly is hampered by a tendency to talk down to his readers.
The Abernathys and their buddies the Renfields decide (out of boredom) to try a demonic summoning ritual in the basement (which is fairly inevitable if you live at 666 Crowley Road). Meanwhile in Switzerland, a weird blue particle appears in the Hadron collider and vanishes.
Apparently these two events just happen to coincide, and succeed in opening a doorway to Hell and allowing some demons to come through and possess the bodies of the Abernathys and Renfields. As if this weren't bad enough, the only person who knows about this is eleven-year-old Samuel and his faithful dog Boswell -- and of course, nobody's going to believe him when he says that Mrs. Abernathy is a tentacled servant of the Great Malevolence (aka Satan) and is planning to destroy the world.
And because of what he knows, Mrs. Abernathy is planning to dispose of Samuel to keep him from interfering -- but she hasn't reckoned either with the boy's determination or ingenuity. Samuel and his little band of friends must somehow stop Mrs. Abernathy's plan to bring the Malevolence into our world, even as their town is infested with flying skulls, lizard-women, gargoyles, horned devils, and the evil undead rising from the grave (including an evil bishop who likes to do unspeakable things with pokers). Can they stop the Gates from opening?
I get the impression that in "The Gates," John Connolly was aiming for a sort of Terry-Pratchett-with-a-dash-of-Douglas-Adams vibe. So unsurprisingly, he spins out the entire story with his tongue planted in cheek, with plenty of hilarious dialogue ("Barry! Christopher says the demonic horde are in your rose garden") and some rather unthreatening minor demons who seem to have trouble with basic assignments (they get drunk, hit by trucks, flushed down the toilet, et cetera).
And Connolly tries out a very different style from his previous books, embracing a sort of quirky, twee British style that you usually associate with classic authors like C.S. Lewis or early J.K. Rowling. Despite the mellow humor spread throughout the book, Connolly does conjure some moments of chilling horror when the major demons start arriving ("pale nightmarish visions consisting of little more than legs and bone and teeth"), and the demonic Mrs. Abernathy has a genuinely evil vibe.
"The Gates'" biggest handicap is that Connolly seems uncomfortably aware that he's writing for kids, and ends up sounding very condescending -- he gives definitions of words like "Malevolence," "deity" and "nefarious," as well as a number of painfully precious, pat-on-the-head lectures. These become less common as the book becomes more exciting, but it's very distracting in the first half.
But I'll give Connolly credit -- he does create a very likable little band of preteen heroes. Samuel is an enjoyably odd kid with a tendency to ask impossible questions of his elders, and a a never-say-die determination to stop the evil Mrs. Abernathy. And Connolly clearly had fun with some of the demonic characters, such as the rather downtrodden, car-loving Nurd (also known as the Scourge of Five Deities), or the elephant-eared blob who can't scare anyone.
John Connolly's first fantasy book for a young adult audience is hampered by a tendency to be condescending. But "The Gates" still manages to be a fun little dark fantasy with a distinctly warped sense of humor.