Published by Doubleday
Cameras are everywhere, watching everything you do. Credit cards contain embedded chips to track every purchase you make, creating a virtual trail of your life. Your identity, the one thing that makes you unique, is being used to make you simply a prisoner and a part of the vast machine. This may seem like the rantings of a paranoid individual, yet if one looks around to see the “security” in place to “make people feel safe” the sense of paranoia gives way to an enlightenment of truth. While the world John Twelve Hawks (JTH) continues to forge in The Dark River, the second novel in The Fourth Realm Trilogy, is fictitious, it is entirely plausible. Because of this plausibility, it may seem all the more frightening.
I thoroughly enjoyed the kick off novel to this trilogy, The Traveler, when it published two years ago, so I was looking forward to the continuing saga of Gabriel Corrigan and those connected to him. Though Gabriel can be considered a protagonist of The Dark River, JTH centers much of the story on Gabriel’s Harlequin protector, Maya. In this imagined world, Travelers (individuals like Gabriel who can leave their bodies to visit other planes of reality and bring enlightenment from those realms to the Fourth Realm – Earth) are protected continually by Harlequins. Harlequins are trained from child-age in the arts of physical combat and subterfuge, pledging their life to protect the Traveler sworn to their care.
During the two days it took me to read this book, I happened to have been working in New York City. I couldn’t help but glance around at the buildings, from the high rise buildings near Penn Station, to the seemingly abandoned and run-down buildings where I spent my workday, looking for hidden cameras. I also felt a little uncomfortable using my debit card.
The reason for this protective relationship is the Brethren, the behind-the-scenes organization responsible for placing hidden cameras in public places and tracking your credit cards. The Brethren, for thousands of years, have been attempting to build the Panopticon, an invisible prison to control and “protect” society; that is , to maintain order. At the end of The Traveler, Gabriel’s brother Michael made a difficult decision. Though himself a Traveler, Michael abandoned his brother and threw in with the Brethren. Michael’s journey through the ranks of the Evergreen Foundation parallels with Gabriel’s coming-to-grips with his role and abilities as a Traveler
In The Dark River, JTH explores more of the metaphysical and fantastical aspects of the world of the Fourth Realm. In The Traveler, Gabriel (and Michael) visited other realms, albeit briefly; in The Dark River, more details are revealed about all the realms Travelers can visit, and a deeper sense of history of the Travelers, Harlequins and Brethren is revealed. Here, in The Dark River, Gabriel spends a great deal of time in realms other than the fourth, providing a deepening of plot as well.
While The Traveler reminded me very much of Orwell’s 1984, I found much of The Dark River resonating with the near-future paranoia infused in the novels of Philip K. Dick. Many of the shadowy governmental controls and the whole idea of an invisible prison would be right at home inside a PKD novel. At times, Gabriel even seems like he is less in control than his role as Traveler would lead you to believe, something which has been said PKD’s protagonists. The death of a small camp of people enlightened by his father in the opening scenes of the novel provides Gabriel with a greater sense of his worth, good or ill, as Traveler. Prior to this point, Gabriel wasn’t able to fully understand how much of an impact he, or his father, had on people in their role as Traveler. Hearing of these deaths brings into focus how important he is and can be to the world-at-large, this hardens his resolve and he becomes a more active participant in his destiny and his opposition to the Brethren.
As Maya, Gabriel, and their entourage try to flee the far-reaching grasp of the Evergreen Foundation, it is revealed that Gabriel’s father, Matthew, is alive. This comes as something of a shock, since Matthew was thought to be dead for fifteen years. This leads Gabriel and his retinue on a search which eventually lands them in London. In this foreign land, Gabriel finds something of a home amongst a group of off-the-gridders who call themselves the Free Runners. While not explicitly speaking about Travelers and the Tabula, their initial discussion points to a knowledge of something trying to encroach on human free-will.
The Free Runners are not as formally organized as the Harlequins, but they do have a social structure and a commitment to a greater good. Gabriel’s quick acceptance into this group of outsiders resonates, touching upon some classic themes. Gabriel (the savior figure) coming from outside the fringe group to act as a leader of the fringe group. Paul Atreides’s similar role in Dune as the messianic figure to the Fremen may be the most immediately recognizable to genre readers. Of course Paul Atreides himself draws much comparison to Jesus. In the world of the Fourth Realm, it is postulated by some that Jesus was a Traveler.
The classic mythological archetypes JTH presents throughout The Fourth Realm contrast very well with the more modern themes of paranoia and governmental control. The messiah savior will save us from our governmental oppressors. It is a resonating theme and one that funnels down throughout the book. I also thought JTH avoided the dreaded “middle-book” syndrome; The Dark River is most definitely not a placeholder. Things do happen, more is revealed about the characters and The Fourth Realm. The only frustrating aspect was the ending; it was a cliffhanger. Readers who were wondering if The Traveler was JTH’s one hit need not worry. The Dark River is satisfying novel in its own right, and a satisfying continuation of JTH’s Fourth Realm trilogy.
© 2007 Rob H. Bedford