REVIEW SUMMARY: Pacing issues mar this sequel, but it’s still a worthwhile read, provided you read the The Traveler. And you should.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Two brothers, Gabriel and Michael, both Travelers able to move between dimensions of consciousness, race to locate their father.
PROS: Engrossing plot; smooth prose; more details given about the “secret history”; we get to see “surprise” characters.
CONS: Pacing issues after the first quarter of the book; Maya comes off as a weaker character; abrupt ending.
BOTTOM LINE: Even with its flaws, this is a better read than most “mainstreamy” novels.
The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks is the sequel to The Traveler. You should read The Traveler first, not only because The Dark River will make more sense, but because it’s a darn good read.
The Dark River continues the story of Maya, a Harlequin who accepts an obligation to protect Gabriel, a so-called traveler whose spirit (for lack of a better word) can pass between any of the six realms of existence. Gabriel’s father, Matthew, was believed to dead but is very much alive and hiding from the evil forces of the Brethren, a nefarious group determined to leverage security fears into total control over society. The race is on find Matthew and harness his powers; a race waged between the forces of good (Maya, Gabriel and their allies) and evil (the Brethren, led by Gabriel’s brother, Michael); one side wishing to enslave society, the other wishing to free it.
Like The Traveler, the pervading theme of The Dark River is privacy versus security. And once again this theme is delicately played, giving the story extra depth without being too heavy-handed. To be clear, the science fiction content here is minor, unless you consider the idea of surveillance tech and tracking individuals through “Shadow Programs” to be cutting edge. And with the crossing over between dimensions of reality, the book reads more mysticism fantasy than sf, though the fantastical elements are not so dominant as to turn off this casual fantasy reader. In other words, this is a book that will appeal to (and is perhaps targeted towards) mainstream fiction readers.
The Dark River fleshes out some more details with the “secret history” between the Brethren/Tabula and the Harlequins. Like before, there are a fair number of forays into underground tunnels, hidden passageways and sparsely populated areas as Maya, Gabriel & Co. try to avoid The Vast Machine. The Vast Machine is the nickname given to the advanced, Brethren-controlled technology that permeates our society that is capable of invading our privacy and tracking our every move. The book also builds on the setting by presenting characters mentioned by name-only in the first book. We also get to see a little more of the other Realms beside our modern day Earth (also known as the Fourth Realm). This is all goodness.
The pacing is another story. The former book was nearly perfect with the speed at which the story moved. And to be sure, with its smooth prose, The Dark River consistently maintained that excellence for the first quarter of its pages. The Big Slowdown came when Maya and Gabriel become separated, each relying on their own ingenuity to sneak into Europe under the radar of The Vast Machine. It was as if they each took part of the book’s energy with them, leaving a slightly diluted experience for the reader. While Gabriel inexplicably hooks up with a Harlequin-sympathetic group calling themselves Free Runners (rebels who avoid The Vast Machine by holding deadly climbing competitions along the city rooftops and walls), Maya takes a slow-boat-to-Europe approach that was equally un-engaging. I’m not quite sure why Gabriel decided to waste time with the Free Runners, especially when trying to keep a low profile. Sure, there was the in-story motive of quick cash, but that was more safely obtained through other means. I suspect the author just needed a set of local allies for our heroes to align with later in the novel. At any rate, it wasn’t until Gabriel and Maya met up again that the story seemed to finally move forward; unevenly so, but forward.
The reservations I had with the inevitable relationship between Maya and Gabriel in the previous book were somewhat validated this time around. Maya’s desires to be a “normal” civilian overcame the requirement for her to be an efficient Harlequin devoid of any personal ties. As a character, Maya certainly deserves this. But the cost is that it makes her a weaker character. Gimme back my kick-ass, sword-wielding warrior, please.
The book’s ending seemed a bit abrupt, too. The final scene was a lost opportunity for another nail-biting action sequence. This is the first book I’ve read where I would have preferred a cliffhanger ending, with the action-packed sequence that “wasn’t” done right in the opening chapter of the next book.
Of course it’s easy to talk about a book’s failing at length and lose sight of the bigger picture. Even with these failings, The Dark River, while a lesser book than The Traveler, is still a quick and fun read, easily surpassing most “mainstreamy” novels in entertainment value.