The Dark River
by John Twelve Hawks
Published by Doubleday
384 pages, 2007
Big Brother, Redux
Reviewed by Patrick A. Smith
Middle installments of trilogies are notoriously difficult animals. Just ask George Lucas. And in The Dark River, the follow-up to the 2005 bestseller The Traveler in the Fourth Realm Trilogy, John Twelve Hawks (more about the pseudonym later) struggles with the burden of his earlier success.
The title character of The Traveler, Gabriel Corrigan, and his brother, Michael, have come down on different sides of Good and Evil. Now, under the watchful eye of the Brethren -- Michael’s new bosses -- and the Vast Machine, all citizens are pawns in a game where only the bad guys know the rules (or, for that matter, that there’s even a game on). Only the Travelers, those gifted with the ability to move between realms -- there are six planes of existence, and we live in the fourth -- stand between the Brethren and their goal. It's all kind of like 1984 on quantum steroids.
In The Dark River’s opening salvo, an Arizona commune friendly to the Travelers comes under attack from a ruthless paramilitary outfit working for the Brethren. The soldiers leave behind a remarkable trail of carnage and a single survivor, young Alice Chen, who witnesses the violence from a hiding place in the compound.
The girl becomes part of a peripatetic group that includes Gabriel and his Harlequin protector, Maya, as well as Hollis, Vicki and Sophia, all of whom have axes to grind with the Vast Machine. Since forsaking his mystical lineage for money and power, Michael has become a rising star with the Brethren. For the bad guys, success with the Panopticon, an inescapable surveillance net, would mean world domination.
Gabriel and Michael are in deadly competition to track down their long-lost father, Matthew, a powerful Traveler who likely holds the key to defeating the Brethren.
Although The Dark River has its fair share of action, Twelve Hawks explores relationships between the Traveler and the Harlequin, Hollis and Vicki, Gabriel and Michael and their father; any questions of loyalty left hanging in The Traveler are sorted out. A couple of new characters, including Mother Blessing, a flame-haired, inscrutable ice queen who will kill anyone not fanatically dedicated to the Harlequins’ cause, add a bit of intrigue to the plot.
Mother Blessing forms an interesting counterpoint to the more emotional -- and, hence, less reliable -- Maya, who wants nothing more than to be a regular girl. Instead, she’s a highly trained killer who will sacrifice her own life to protect her Traveler. Though avowedly anti-Brethren, the Harlequin code is itself strict and repressive, and Twelve Hawks neatly fleshes out the contradictions of Maya’s life and her somewhat disturbing childhood.
In fact, those relationships are the strongest in the book, and one wonders, gazing into the crystal ball, if the Harlequins will be elevated (or, perhaps, their numbers increased) in the series’ final installment.
Twelve Hawks has a fascination with free running -- urban gymnastics in which participants avoid obstacles by fluidly executing jumps and vaults -- and the movement figures prominently in Gabriel’s efforts to stay “off the Grid.” The free runners treat Gabriel as a messiah, thrown into their midst by happenstance in a London pub (fitting, since the Harlequins who protect the Travelers often rely on random-number generators to make decisions for them). They are an interesting lot who take pride in evading the gaze of ubiquitous cameras and other detection devices.
Despite some intriguing character development, though, The Dark River can’t escape a certain episodic sameness, the cuts from scene to scene contrived rather than coming as part of the story’s flow, as if the whole thing were already storyboarded for Hollywood.
In fact, The Dark River sometimes reads like the novelization of a film, descriptions written in a shorthand that stands in for vivid, living prose. When remarking on the harsh landscape of an Irish convent where Gabriel and Maya search for Matthew Corrigan, Twelve Hawks writes, “Wind blew past conical pieces of stone and rippled through scurry grass, saw thistle, and sorrel. Skellig Columba resembled the ruins of a massive castle with fallen towers and shattered archways. All the seabirds had disappeared and were replaced by ravens, which circled above them, cawing to one another.”
Cue the atmospheric music. Cut to the menace with a knife.
This and a few similar scenes are unfortunate, because the author generally has a strong sense of place, from New York to London, the Irish coast to Rome. A generation of thirty- and forty-somethings who secretly watch Raiders of the Lost Ark in the privacy of their own homes on the odd Saturday night (full disclosure: I’m one of them) will appreciate a plotline involving a trip to Ethiopia.
And especially effective are images of the kind of traveling that only the Travelers can do.
Gabriel’s visit to the First Realm -- hell, replete with its own river Styx -- is one of the book’s highlights, and Twelve Hawks’ dystopian vision is clear and frightening, sharp enough to recall Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. The author also shows a sly sense of humor: hell is a mindless bureaucracy that perpetuates itself through torture and murder. A nice ironic touch in an otherwise very serious tale.
But those passages also remind us how uneven this book can be. Scenes of violence and oppression in the Fourth Realm -- the “real world,” the here and now -- might satisfy our desire for Technicolor brutality, but they are rarely as evocative as those in Gabriel’s hell, where the search for identity at the novel’s core is underscored by the dismal cityscape and the inability of the characters to make any meaningful connections.
Twelve Hawks’ pacing balances edge-of-the-seat chases and lethal fights with engaging characters (notwithstanding a few cardboard villains), though even the action scenes can be herky-jerky. One false move, a couple of lapsed passages or a few lines of loose dialogue, and the characters play out their roles against a blue screen: two-dimensional, dull, lifeless. But for the most part, this book is neither dull nor lifeless.
Like the novel itself, however, the author’s backstory rings with a certain contrived inauthenticity: the book’s cover matter suggests only that Twelve Hawks lives “off the Grid,” and we know from published articles and interviews that the author uses a voice-modulation device in his (her?) infrequent dealings with the media.
The marketing ploy has worked well enough that the topic is popular on certain Web discussion boards, one of which even lists odds on the identity of John Twelve Hawks. Among the favorites: Dan Brown (yes, he of The Da Vinci Code fame; both Brown and Twelve Hawks share a publisher), science-fiction writer Kage Baker, and -- hold on to your hat -- Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling.
As misguided as some of those guesses must be, they hint at the book’s split personality. Is The Dark River a techno-thriller? Science fiction? Contemporary fantasy? Suspense? A novel of Big Ideas?
Twelve Hawks owes much to George Orwell’s bleak vision, the cyberpunk martial arts wizardry of The Matrix, the intricate travelogue quality of The Da Vinci Code, Michael Crichton’s cutting-edge tech novels. The Dark River is all of those things.
But much of it is derivative, not subversive, a mishmash of competing ideas and philosophies. The book wants too much, like Gabriel and Maya, to be a part of two worlds: one that mawkishly celebrates the virtues of anonymous living; the other that, despite its strong instincts to the contrary, craves the spotlight.
With middle books, though, difficult as they must be -- and particularly in a series as popular as this -- much is expected and much forgiven. Finally, The Dark River is only a bridge between the articulation of a vision and its realization.
Whether Twelve Hawks can cut the bullseye in the finale remains to be seen. A lot of readers in the Fourth Realm are waiting -- and hoping. | August 2007
Patrick A. Smith is the author of three books on topics in American literature, including The true bones of my life: Essays on the Fiction of Jim Harrison. His work has appeared in Quarter After Eight, Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Studies in Short Fiction and Sports Afield, among other venues. Smith, an associate editor of Bookmarks magazine, teaches college English and lives with his family in Tallahassee, Florida.