The Gradual is a book with some good ideas that doesn’t really live up to its potential. It also has one of the best hooks I’ve read this year – with the first chapter teasing a time travel element to the story that doesn’t really surface until halfway through the book.
I’m a sucker for fantasy/science fiction, and so the anticipation of the time travel twist – and exactly how it would work in Christopher Priest’s world – is part of what fuelled me through the first half of the book. So it kinda surprised me when the time travel element of the book ended up being dull and unsatisfying. It slowed the pace of the novel down to a crawl (ironic?), and hindered the second half of the book from resolving the events of the first half very well.
In fact, the lacklustre second half just made me realise how strong the first half of the novel really was. For me, this was the first time that the introduction of a fantastical element has been a novel’s turning point for the worse rather than the better.
The Gradual focuses on the life of Alesandro Sussken, a famed musician who lives in the fictional country of Glaund. Throughout his musical career he finds himself repeatedly drawn to a set of islands that reside off the coast of Glaund that are forbidden to residents of his country. However, one day, a life changing opportunity comes along and Sussken is given the chance to take part in a musical tour of the islands.
There’s a lot more to the novel than that though – tons of different story threads and an impressive number of characters. This description only skims the surface of the novel’s first half, but trust me when I say it’s engaging. Things move at a slow pace in the first half (not quite as slow as the second), but Priest manages to keep things interesting. He builds up a series of mysteries that keep the reader engaged – craving to find out where they’ll lead to. By jumping between the different mysteries regularly, Priest keeps the book engaging while not actually having to move along any of the storylines too much. It’s a style that works for the most part.
But again, the second half… It isn’t as awful as I might be making it out to be (and the final twenty or so pages are pretty moving), but Priest just seems to squander all the anticipation he builds up. More storylines are introduced, making the book feel overstuffed, and none of them really seem to go anywhere. Mysteries are stacked on top of mysteries, and in the end only a few of them are really resolved.
I’ve got nothing against ambiguity, but the way Priest uses it in The Gradual just rubs me up the wrong way. It seems like he leaves many of his storylines’ endings ambiguous because he knows that the solutions to his mysteries have no way of being half as interesting as the mysteries themselves.
There’s definitely a fantastic book in here, and it’s worth reading just for the parts where it really shines.