The Short Version: Samuel Johnson helped foil a demonic invasion in The Gates. This has caused him no shortage of difficulty in life, as people seem to remember it and look askance at him because of it. It probably doesn’t help that he tried to ask out a postbox by accident. Of course, that’s the least of his troubles – because he ends up back in Hell (alongside his loyal dog) after Mrs. Abernathy (the demon formerly known as Ba’al) drags him in to achieve her revenge. So, things aren’t really going all that well…
The Review: I really enjoyed The Gates. It wasn’t anything spectacular but it was a lot of fun. I loved Connolly’s Pratchett-ian footnotes and his willingness to bring science and fantasy together in such an organic way. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a short play about Jesus showing up when they turn on the Hadron Collider. Ripping open a portal to Hell is not out of the realm of possibility. Sadly, there’s less science in this book – although there is one moment about halfway through that presents a fascinating look at the Multiverse theory and that (judging by the last lines) sets up a third book that will be a bit more inventive in nature. See, one of the most hilarious things about that first book was all the scientists running around not knowing what the heck to do. Here, they’re all relegated to a few lines about turning the Collider back on and slight energy loss.
Instead, the story focuses on Mrs. Abernathy seeking out Samuel and dragging him into Hell so that she can redeem herself in the eyes of The Great Malevolence (the Devil). There’s some interesting but ultimately rather boring politicking that happens between the upper levels of demons in Hell, the sort of Machiavellian power-playing that I usually find so entertaining…. but that was really kind of boring here. Perhaps because the book was written for a young audience? That might make sense, as there’s some significant flattening of concepts here. At the same time, though, it’s a remarkably adult book for a children’s story. This, I appreciated greatly – and would’ve undoubtedly felt the same way as a young teen.
In the end, I found the book a bit “second-book”-y. The plot was so very loose: Samuel is pulled back into Hell (and so are some others), they’re all separated, there are complications of a vaguely humorous and/or scary sort, there’s a daring plan, and then everything is resolved…. with a few threads left dangling for a sequel. But even that resolution comes slap-bang out of nowhere and seems rather sudden. The whole book feels rushed, as though it could’ve done with a bit more tweaking and perhaps even a bit more development. Even the characters (many of whom we’ve encountered before) seem to remain pretty stagnant. Yes, Nurd has become even more of a good guy and Ba’al has just gotten really weird because of the Mrs. Abernathy thing… but there isn’t really any actual development. We’re told that development happens and, lo, it does. But we don’t really see it happen. It just does.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I enjoyed the book, certainly – but I didn’t love it. In fact, I found my interest waning as it went on. Vignettes from the book – like the sequence with Old Ram, which I unabashedly loved – were engaging but there wasn’t enough connective tissue between all of it. Instead of “The Empire Strikes Back”, we got “The Temple of Doom” – a second movie that doesn’t really do much to further the series, although it doesn’t really set it back. We’re just spinning our wheels – but the promise of the third book is actually very exciting and I look forward to it, whenever we may see it on our shelves.