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Sunday, September 30th, 2007
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The Dark River: A Novel (Fourth Realm Trilogy #02)

by John Twelve Hawks

Future Tech and Fantastic Realms

A review by Rod Smith

It's hardly surprising that Random House hyped John Twelve Hawks's first novel so hard -- The Traveler, released in 2005, goes down like meth's nutritious, G-rated cousin, or, for those not into snorting fiction, the literary equivalent of oysters. Plus, even though there's nothing in the book that would make it hard going for the average fifteen year-old, it resonates longer and better than most paranoid thrillers with exotic spiritual underpinnings. Casting a wide, well-made net was the smartest thing the publisher could have done -- and it worked.

Still, it's entirely possible that The Traveler could have attained the New York Times bestseller list minus most of the publisher's ballyhoo -- the accompanying ads and video games frightened off some honest readers, while the simple fact of the novel's success prompted a flurry of online troll attacks. That so many of Twelve Hawks's detractors hadn't read the book highlighted the controversy's impotence nicely. But this is good: both The Traveler and part two of Twelve Hawks's Fourth Realm trilogy, The Dark River, have much to offer above and beyond literary merit.

Granted, the author never lets anything impede the story's momentum. While The Traveler ends on a peaceful note, its sequel closes with cliffhangers strung from the British Isles to Ethiopia. The grand narrative's premise is simple: since remote antiquity, certain gifted individuals -- Travelers, in the author's parlance -- have been visiting parallel realities and returning with knowledge that's contributed to humanity's advancement. For just as long, a secret organization known to its members as the Brethren and to its enemies as the Tabula has sought to enslave humanity and kill Travelers. Only a handful of Harlequins -- highly trained fighters devoted to protecting the latter -- stand between the Travelers and extinction. Naturally, the forces of good are ridiculously outnumbered.

To make matters worse, the Tabula -- which controls pretty much every government in the developed world -- enjoys total access to radio frequency identification data from passports and driver's licenses and can hack the feeds of pretty much every security camera anywhere. The Dark River opens with Maya, a half-Indian, half-German hereditary Harlequin, struggling to get Traveler Gabriel Corrigan and a few allies out of New York as the Tabula closes in on them. As if Tabula security chief Nathan Boone's mercenaries weren't trouble enough, Maya and Gabriel are falling in love, a serious no-no. Also, Corrigan has just learned that his Traveler father is still alive, as has his Traveler brother Michael, who works for the Tabula.

Only one of the author's Six Realms -- a series of otherworlds inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist afterlife -- figures in the novel, and it's Hell. But it figures with a vividness rooted in real-world conflict: when an interviewer for Der Spiegel asked the author if the realm was based on contemporary Iraq, he replied with "more like Beirut in the '70's." Likewise, The Dark River's apparently futuristic tech is all either already in play -- as with RFID chip-embedded passports -- or due for implementation very soon. While fantastical elements help drive Twelve Hawks's plot, it's his understanding of the surveillance society's machinations, how they affect us more and more daily, and how they might be curtailed, that makes The Dark River so utterly necessary. That hardly anyone knows who the author really is ("John Twelve Hawks" is a pseudonym), and that his website is flashier than any rock band's, only sweeten the deal.

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Rain Taxi, a winner of the Alternative Press Award for Best Arts & Literature Coverage, is a quarterly publication that publishes reviews of literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction with an emphasis on works that push the boundaries of language, narrative, and genre. Essays, interviews, and in-depth reviews reflect Rain Taxi's commitment to innovative publishing.

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