A friend once told me that Hesse’s Steppenwolf was a different book when read at 40 from when it was read at 20. This is the distinction of a great book.
Last summer Ruth Graham caused a stir among readers of books dubbed Young Adult (YA) when she declared, “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” I don’t distinguish between genres in this 24-hour post-modern deconstructionist wine and cheese party where even the ingredients on a Twinkee package can become soul searing poetry, if read under conducive literary circumstances.
So when CR Fladmark’s The Gatekeeper’s Son was introduced to me as a “young adult novel that blends urban fantasy with Japanese mythology,” I didn’t distinguish it from Hesse (Herman Hesse because of his search for enlightenment and love of Eastern philosophy) and I didn’t know if I should feel ashamed for reading it.
At just 16 years old, James Junya Thompson is an accomplished architect, computer hacker, and martial artist with a millionaire grandfather. What he knew as normal as a 15 year old is turned topsy turvy shortly after his 16th birthday. Not only does his grandfather’s assistant, Ms Lin, who he has made the star of his pre-adolescent fantasies, kiss him on the mouth, telling him, “I wanted to be the first woman to kiss you now that you’ve become a man,” he also spies a mysterious young girl who literally knocks him off his feet. The book begins with his encounter with Shoko, the mysterious girl in a Japanese school uniform.
Shoko is the catalyst that unravels James’ normal world. She sets into motion situations that expose his mother’s secret former life, his grandfather’s past misdeeds, and his own mixed unearthly heritage. James Junya Thompson is the “son” mentioned in the title of the book. The Gatekeepers, as Shoko explains to James are “the guardians of this world (the world of Gods), to keep out the evil that has infested your world (the human world).” Gatekeepers are the only ones who can travel through the gates between worlds at will. Most are locked and some only allow temporary admittance.
When James’ grandfather was a young man, he was given temporary access. His greed initiated a covert surveillance operation by the gods. While it’s made abundantly clear James’ grandfather is a very successful businessman, it is not as clear what he or his company, the Thompson Group, does. The book’s first pages mention a successful bookstore renovation that James worked on and something called the Bayview Complex. It’s never made clear what the Complex might be or why it is in financial trouble. “Bayview Complex” sounded like a real estate gentrification project to me, so it became one. I imagined the Bayview Complex as super deluxe luxury condos in a poor but hip neighborhood and I imagined the Thompson Group as a real estate company in the spirit of Donald Trump’s Trump Organization.
I also had to imagine James’ father. Robert Thompson, father of James Junya Thompson, and son of Edward Thompson, doesn’t want anything to do with the family business; though it’s hinted that he works for his father despite this. While his grandfather and his mother, who he refers to in her native Japanese as “Okaasan,” appear prominently in James’ story, his father is an afterthought. As an adult reader and a father myself, I couldn’t help wondering why? Why isn’t James’ father a more integral part of his life?
James Junya Thompson is a teenaged Tony Stark-Stephen Strange mashup seasoned with a mixed-race heritage. It’s clearly stated that his mother is Japanese but I had to assume the ethnicity of his father’s side of the family. I made the Thompsons Caucasian based on the light skinned models they used in the cover art. However, the Thompsons could have easily been black or the third of fourth generation of any other ethnicity that has assimilated into America.
The relationship between father and son, James’ objectification of Ms. Lin as his “own personal porn star,” the differences between Japanese and American cultures, and his mixed race heritage are just some of the opportunities CR Fladmark creates to address the personal and social issues adolescent boys must navigate during their first steps into the adult world. Unfortunately, CR chooses not to. The Gatekeeper’s Son suffers the lack of meaningful “complexity” that Ruth Graham bemoans adult readers of YA novels are missing out on.
I don’t like Ruth’s Young Adult/New Adult shaming and I am saddened by Shailene Woodley’s quote about her hit movie based on the Young Adult book, The Fault in Our Stars. Ruth quotes her as saying she cannot empathize with the character she played anymore because, “I’m not a young adult anymore — I’m a woman.” I interpret this as meaning she would not read Paul Yee’s Money Boy because she is not Chinese and poor or Lisa Yee’s books set in the her fictional teen world of Rancho Rosetta because she is not of Asian or mixed Asian heritage. This pronouncement of willful ignorance or blindness concerns me as the Western world meets the Eastern world to share dreams and language.
In Lisa Yee’s Bobby series, we are told Bobby Ellis-Chan is of mixed ethnic descent like James Junya Thompson. It is not essential to the story but helps the reader better imagine the character. CR Fladmark effectively gets us into James’ head but he doesn’t do much exploring. Like the childhood classics Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz, The Gatekeeper’s Son introduces us to a parallel world existing right next to ours. However, unlike the classics, it takes too long to get to the action; Which would be OK, if that time was spent delving deeper into the characters introduced.
CR introduces too many new characters in the space between the fights and chases. I would have preferred to have had the time between katana slices and karate punches spent on getting to know James’ father better or the depth of the evil in Mr. Bartholomew or Mr. Mueller (they are the story’s villains, though they are mentioned as often in the book as they have been in this review.) Overall, The Gatekeeper’s Son was enjoyable to read but required some patience before the action got started.