John Twelve Hawks, The Dark River (Book Two of the Fourth Realm Trilogy). Doubleday, 2007. Pp. 384. ISBN 978-0385514293. $24.95 / £14.99.

Reviewed by Ixthus

The Dark River is the second book of The Fourth Realm trilogy by John Twelve Hawks. I came to this book having not read the previous title, or anything else by the author. Indeed, the stock system of a major bookseller registered having only one of their stores in the U.K. as holding anything by him.

I read a U.S. copy of the book and I must admit to having difficulty adjusting to the use of American spelling and the alternative American names for things (it took a few moments for me to realise that a French Press was not to be associated with a French Letter, but what I would refer to as a cafetière. Perhaps that's just the way my mind works.) The first book is entitled "The Traveler", and there seem to be a large number of these thorns to avoid, even though a significant portion of the story takes place in the U.K. That is a minor (and personal) point. Having since sourced a copy of the U.K. edition of The Traveler, I notice that the word "Traveler" has been changed to "Traveller," though I don't know if there are other changes.

Gabriel Corrigan is a "Traveler", one of a very select band of people who can separate their spiritual energy and wander amongst the realms other than our own. Doing so leaves their physical bodies in a state similar to a coma, and therefore vulnerable. Travelers across the ages have been hunted and slaughtered by the "Brethren." The Brethren are also known as the "Tabula" by their enemies because they believe that humanity and human consciousness is a tabula rasa, a clean slate to fill with intolerance and fear.

The current generation of Brethren are planning, and putting into practice, a "Virtual Panopticon". A Panopticon is a design for a prison building brought about by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century in which it is virtually impossible to be anywhere that retains any privacy: wherever you are it is possible to be viewed by other inmates and by prison guards. Bentham's idea was that, as well as it being easier to oversee the behaviours of the inmates, having no privacy meant that inmates were bound to be more docile, more manageable, and less likely to cause trouble. The Brethren believe that a modern society based around all-encompassing surveillance system—including security cameras, microphones, Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, and so on—will lead to a populace that is docile and controllable, and where individuals and organisations opposed to them have no place to hide.

Michael, Gabriel's brother (and also a Traveler), has been captured by the Brethren, and now appears to be working with them. The Brethren see his skills as being useful for tracking down other Travelers, not least of which is Matthew Corrigan, Michael and Gabriel's father.

Alongside the Travelers fight the Harlequins, another secretive and select group of people. They eschew relationships in favour of the lone martial life; through the ages it has been their role to protect the Travelers from the Brethren, at whatever cost.

The story starts in a community called New Harmony, a small group of people set up by Matthew Corrigan and living in a remote location far from the Vast Machine, the network of surveillance devices and modern networks of control present in our everyday lives. Gabriel has gone into hiding in New York with Maya, a Harlequin, and a couple of other characters, Hollis Wilson and Vicki Fraser. Maya lets slip that she knows that Gabriel's father is still alive. The group are hunted down by the Brethren, and Gabriel sets out to track down his father.

The personalities are complex and well portrayed. The interactions between the characters of a story are always more interesting than the individuals themselves, and the author realises the motivations and tensions well. I really enjoyed some of the exchanges beween Mother Blessing, who has been portrayed as a viciously ruthless Harlequin, and Hollis Wilson towards the end of the book.

There are quite a few places in the book where technologies that exist (and are in use now) are explained, and potential uses of many of these to erode our privacy and rights are covered. It is very refreshing to see these real-life systems and techniques described well for the layperson. Every description is real and concise, and not patronising to someone who understands them already. In many cases the privacy concerns do not need to be spelled out, but in others some of the concerns are brought to the reader's attention. It is in stark contrast to the ludicrous writing behind so many Hollywood films these days. This stuff is real and is all around us now.

The style of the writing reminds me somewhat of Greg Bear. Generally the prose is very efficient and economical, which is also refreshing, though in one or two places it goes almost too far: an extra sentence or two might make it feel like the author was not rushing to get to the next part. I found that there were some wonderfully perceptive vignettes scattered throughout the book. Not really connected to the story directly, these definitely give the impression that the author cares about making his fantasy world and his characters believable.

The writing mixes very astute observations with a somewhat naive style in places. Some of this is deliberate, such as sections told from the perspective of the child Alice Chen who is forced to undergo a dreadful loss of innocence at the very beginning of the story. The naiveté is somewhat endearing, but can also be overwhelming in places. This seems to become less noticeable as the story unfolds, thankfully. It's also in stark contrast to the uncompromising ruthlessness elsewhere in the book.

In the first half dozen chapters there are explanations of occurrences from the first book. These were succinct, like the rest of the writing, but they did stand out, especially after a brief section right at the beginning describing the characters and previous events. I couldn't help feeling that they would be sore for people already used to the characters and the first instalment of the story. Then again, I am glad that they were there to guide me.

I have one major gripe with one section of the story: The Free Running competition was not believable. It doesn't detract too much from the story, but I think the purpose it served could have been done better another way. Although Gabriel is supposed to be a Traveler and an outstanding character in terms of spiritual and physical abilities, it is difficult to imagine a novice to the art of Free Running giving a group of the best in the UK a run for their money (if you'll pardon the expression). People who practice Free Running or Parkour spend many, many hours performing the same feats over and over again until the movements become natural for their bodies to perform.

I would also make slight complaint with the portrayal of the "bad guys." The "good guys" are complex characters who each have their own motivations, who fight amongst themselves, and for the most part they are believable. The antagonists, while being utterly ruthless and despicable, have this unfortunate air of "Bond-villain" about them. It's true that people like these are difficult to sympathise with, but in places it feels like these characters step slightly beyond the very nasty into the parody. I think this detracts from any intention the author may have in showing our privacy and our freedoms being eroded in the real world today. After all, the people who promote surveillance culture in our world have rational, considered reasons for wanting to do so. Not to say that these characters don't, it's just that I expected them to suddenly cackle and rub their hands together in glee rather than express these reasons. One character stands out from the rest of the antagonists, that of the mercenary Nathan Boone. Story-wise, he is most closely related to the protagonists, and he is an interesting, believable, and very nasty character.

I can't help feeling that any stand that the author was taking against the invasion of privacy was not strong enough. I do think that the author genuinely believes that our privacy and our freedoms are being eroded, and that this is a Bad Thing, but this aspect almost seems like an adjunct to the story, or possibly something to drive it along. The book does serve to educate the reader in terms of the technologies that are in use today, and I hope that the Author's Note is enough to persuade readers that this part of the story represents the real world, as it is today. However, I feel that the sorts of people who will be drawn to these books will be the sorts of people who are very aware of the ways in which our freedoms are under attack. Preaching to the converted? Perhaps.

It is clear from the structure of the book that this is the second part of a trilogy. Expect that you will be thrown into a world which has a significant back story already, and do not expect things to be tied up neatly at the end of this book.

I guess I had hoped for a piece of biting social commentary on a par with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Instead this is fast-paced, intelligent, and engaging fantasy.

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