The Twilight Gods by Hayden Thorne
London during the Great Exhibition of 1851 is a new world of technological advances, eye-popping inventions, and glimpses of exotic treasures from the East. For fifteen-year-old Norris Woodhead it’s a time of spectral figures mingling with London’s daily crowds, and an old rectory in a far corner of the English countryside, a great house literally caught in time, where answers to curious little mysteries await him. Confined by his family’s financial woes, Norris suffers a lonely and unsatisfying time till the day he (and only he) notices “shadow-folks” in the streets. Then a strange widow appears, rents a vacant room in the house, and takes him under her wing. She becomes his guardian, slowly revealing those shadows’ secrets, Norris’ connection with them, and the life-altering choices he has to face in the end.
The Twilight Gods is a retelling of Native American folktale called “The Girl Who Married a Ghost.” Set in Victorian England, it’s an alternative perspective on a gay teen’s coming-out process, with Norris’ journey of self-discovery couched in magical and supernatural terms and imagery.
Since this is the same author that wrote the truly fabulous Masks series, I jumped at the chance to read another young adult novel by her. Unfortunately I ended up declining to review this book for the official site due to the obvious, insulting, and demeaning message that is played out with a very heavy hand. Ultimately this book tells young men that to accept your homosexuality you will be ostracized and forced into a martyr like existence where for anyone to even “see” you, you must hide what you truly are. Fabulous message for young gay adults and I only hope none actually read this book.
Fifteen year old Norris Woodhead is part of a poor family. With an emotionally absent father and a financially stressed mother, the family has focused on providing good prospects for their three older children. This has left Norris as an often forgotten member of the family and too poor to afford the education he so desperately wants. Instead Norris tends to make useless objects for fun and stare out the window. During one of his mindless staring sessions that Norris starts to realize he can see “shadow people” in the streets. These are specters that no one else can see or interact with but over time become more obvious and clear to Norris. With the help of an unexpected and sudden guardian angel in the form of a widow, Norris seeks to find the answers to the “shadow people” and what it means for his own choices.
The plot is somewhat convoluted, especially since the story leaves hints and unanswered questions up until page 200 (out of 233). It is only then that the answers are finally exposed in a very heavy handed metaphorical manner. Subtly is completely lost in this telling and unfortunately not for the betterment of the book. Norris comes to realize that the “shadow people” are actually homosexuals that have all accepted their sexuality and thus must live in isolation in the “twilight.” The reasoning behind this is because “normal” people can’t and won’t accept homosexuals or see them for who and what they are. When a homosexual wants to interact with the normal world, they must put on a “mask” to hide their true self and become visible.
This heavy handed and completely obvious correlation to the reaction to homosexuality doesn’t benefit the story or the characters. Instead Norris is offered the choice between his poor family, no friends, lack of education, no real prospects, and watching the petty, miserable antics of his sisters or live in happiness with other gay/shadow people where he can read all he wants, get his much desired education, experience no hardship, no problems, and no misery. To live in this gay wonderland, Norris must simply accept that he is gay and thus become invisible to his family and the real world. A bit of an obvious choice even if the boy wasn’t gay. Furthermore Norris’ acceptance of his homosexuality is tainted by these aspects, which are too one sided, and it’s almost as if his desire for an education is more a deciding factor than the sudden realization he likes boys.
The catalyst for Norris’ revelation is a shadow boy named Tom. Norris supposedly is enamored of Tom and wants a friendship/relationship with him, but at 15 years old Norris doesn’t quite know what that entails. Instead he focuses on the happiness and joy he feels when he’s not alone and among those who accept him unconditionally. There is very little to Tom and almost no characterization afforded him. Tom seems to pop up in scenes to help Norris discover it’s better to be gay but there is very little connection and depth between the two boys. Once Norris accepts he is gay, Tom ceases to be an important figure. Similarly the guardian angel of Mrs. Cavendish is weak and ineffectual. She guides Norris to discovering his sexuality yet refuses to answer any questions and acts more like a shadow person travel guide than an actual emotional and intellectual support for the confused Norris.
I was disturbed by the hints that the shadow people were actually all the homosexuals in historical London and thus deeply disappointed this came out to be true. The obvious parallels are overdone and actually accept that to be gay you will never fit in and never be accepted. Why is this a positive message to send to young gay adults? And that the price you pay – losing all your family, friends, and life in a normal world – for the acceptance of who and what you are, is worth it. I’m not even sure the characters in the book agree with such a sentiment let alone anyone reading this. But in the book no one really missed Norris once he was gone and barely looked for him, just accepting his magical disappearance.
Other than the problematic message, the story has an engaging voice and interesting prose. The story is mostly handled in a light hearted, fluffy manner where the antics of a poor family are slightly mocked for their petty fights, desire for fashion and reaching above their station and overall present a sad and aloof depiction of a poor family’s life in that era. The story is told from Norris’ third person point of view and he is often detached from the family and daily activities so thus the reader is detached and develops no real connection to this group of people. Their antics are light and mocking without any real bite. The telling is neither humorous nor dour, but more so easy until the end. The book is slightly unfocused as it follows Norris’ day to day life, showing a marked lack of interest and action. It is only through the heavy hand of Mrs. Cavendish and Tom that Norris even considers his sexual orientation and slowly realizes what that means for his future.
Overall I’d suggest staying away from this book. Perhaps the sentiment is one that appeals and is relatable to many – feeling isolated and ignored for their sexuality – but it’s also insulting to both heterosexual and homosexual people. But that’s just my opinion. Instead I’ll leave you with the final sentiment the story ends on:
Norris’ gaze drifted from one person to the next. “Will they ever see me again?”
“Only if they look closely enough,” Tom replied, glancing down at him with a rueful yet fond smile. “Of course, you’ll have a mask to use once you’re done at the great house and are ready to head forth into university. Everyone will see you then.”
“But not as I really am.”
Tom nodded. “Not as you really are.”
Norris fell silent as he mulled things over. “Do you think that it will happen someday? That my family will see me without my mask on?”
“It all depends on them, I think.”