Book Review 67: The Dark River

Hollis handed Kevin the two hundred dollars and got up from the table. "Do a good job on this and I'll give you a bonus. Who knows? Maybe you'll make enough to fly to Paris."

"Why would I want to do that"?"

"You could meet the woman at the Eiffel Tower."

"That's no fun." Kevin returned to his computer. "Real flesh is too much trouble.

Page 163-164

The Dark River is the second book in John Twelve Hawks’ Fourth Realm Trilogy. You should read the first book, The Traveler, before reading this one. My review of The Traveler is here.

This book is just okay. The story isn’t as compelling as the first book in the series, and the overall theme drifts. Where the first book was all about the choices people make and the power of making decisions, this book is more about what happens to the characters and how we should fear the modern surveillance society.This book gets a little preachier and when it does that, it loses much of its impact. Still, if you liked the Traveler, you will probably want to read this one, too. And, while I haven’t started it yet, I do look forward to reading the next book in the series.

The book continues the adventures of Gabriel, Maya, Hollis, and their cohorts as they try to avoid the reach of the Tabula -- the vast surveillance organization and machine that seeks to control the world. Along the way, the try to find Gabriel's father, strike at the machine, and avenge those living off the grid. The novel takes us to the Arizona dessert, the tunnels of New York, the roof tops and squats of London, the craggy cliffs of Ireland, the catacombs of Rome, and the sands of Ethiopia. The novel also takes us out of our earthly realm (the fourth realm) and into others. There's adventure, violence, philosophy, violence, political commentary, and more violence.  The violence is not excessive for the story, but there is a lot of it.

One of the problems I have with the novel is one I also had with the first book. It’s just that here, it’s not overshadowed by other things. That problem is the tone of the writing. In many places, it feels immature. The author tends to write without subtlety, as though he wants to be extra sure that his readers “get it.”
The New Harmony operation had been good for morale; the necessary violence had unified a group of mercenaries with different nationalities and backgrounds.

Page 70

The Upper West Side was filled with restaurants, nail salons, and Starbucks coffee shops. Hollis had never been able to figure out why so many men and women spent the day at Starbucks sipping lattes as they stared at their computers. Most of them looked too old to be students and too young to be retired. Occasionally, he had glanced over someone's shoulder to see what project took so much effort. He began to believe that everyone in Manhattan was writing the same movie screenplay about the romantic problems of the urban middle class.

Page 162

Nathan Boone passed through the revolving door and entered the atrium lobby He glanced at the decorative waterfall and the small grove of artificial spruce trees placed near the windows. The architects had insisted on living evergreens, but each new transplant withered and died, leaving an unsightly carpet of brown needles. The eventual solution was a grove of manufactured trees with an elaborate air system that gave off a faint pine scent. Everyone preferred the imitation evergreens: they seemed more real than something that grew in the forest.

Page 200-201

There is a point to these passages, but it feels like the author is just trying too hard. Here’s another example where the author goes a long way around to make his point. As above, the imagery is solid, but it’s just a little too much. It feels like a stronger edit could have made the text better.

Something passed through the air and she gazed upward at the oculus—the round opening at the top of the dome. A gray dove was trapped inside the temple and was trying to escape. Desperately flapping its wings, the bird rose through the air in a tight spiral. But the oculus was too far away, and the dove always gave up a few yards from freedom. Maya could see that the dove was getting tired. Each new attempt brought another failure and it kept drifting lower—pulled down by the weight of its exhausted body. The bird was so frightened and desperate that all it could do was keep flying, as if the motion itself would provide a solution.

Page 280

At the same time, there are passages that sound like they are straight out of an action movie. And I mean that as a good thing. I can easily imagine these books being made into a series of movies. (Apparently, Warner Brothers is working on it.) They could be quite entertaining. Some of the heavy-handed exposition from earlier could translate well to cinematic imagery. Plus, there are some great movie lines in the book.

Hollis stood up and approached Naz. Although he held the shotgun with his left hand, he didn't need the weapon to be intimidating. "I'm not a church member these days, but I still remember a lot of the sermons. In his Third Letter from Mississippi, Isaac Jones said that anyone who takes the wrong path would cross a dark river to a city of endless night. Doesn't sound like the kind of place you'd like to spend eternity ..."

Page 58

"It's electronically activated." Mother Blessing scrutinized a small steel box attached to the wall near the door. "This is a palm vein scanner that uses infrared light. Even if we had known about this, it would be difficult to create a bio dupe. Most veins aren't visible beneath the skin."

"So what are we going to do? "

'When you're trying to overcome security barriers, the choices are either low-tech or very high-tech. "

Mother Blessing took the submachine gun from Hollis, removed a spare ammunition clip from the equipment bag, and slid the clip between her belt and waistband. The Harlequin pointed her weapon at the door and motioned Hollis to step aside. "Get ready. We're going low."

Page 332

Maya, the Harlequin, continues to be one of the heroes of the book.

Maya felt better when she finally got out of the building. Her favorite hour was approaching: the transition between day and night. Before the streetlights went on, the air seemed to be filled with little black specks of darkness. Shadows lost their sharp edges and boundaries faded away. Like a knife blade, sharp and clean, she passed through the gaps in the crowd and cut through the city.

Page 48-49

Even so, by about halfway through the book, her actions feel like they make less sense. The character is no longer driving the plot. Instead the plot drives the character. As a result, many of those actions don’t feel like those of the Maya we know from the first book or even the first part of this book. The way the author portrayed her in the first place doesn’t really fit with how she’s being portrayed later in the story. There are subtle elements of her character and thought process that seem to be missing.

There are still interesting things that happen here. For example, an orphan attaches herself to Maya.

What does she want? Maya thought. I'm the last 'person in the world to show her any love or physical affection. She remembered Thorn telling her about a trip he had taken through the southern Sudan. When her father spent the day with missionaries at a refugee camp, a little boy—an orphan of war—had followed him around like a lost dog. "All living things have a desire to survive," her father explained. "If children have lost their family, they search for the most powerful person, the one who can protect them. . . ."

Page 141

That assessment of orphan behavior can describe the rest of the citizenry as well, as they willingly surrender their lives to the vast machine.

John Twelve Hawks created a terribly interesting and terrifying cosmology with his books, and The Dark River is an interesting exploration of that. It’s an uneven follow-up to the first in the series, but is likely still worth reading.

This is the first time I’ve said this, but my ultimate recommendation about whether or not to read this book will depend on my opinion on the third book in the series -- The Golden City, which I haven’t read yet. If The Golden City turns out to be a great book, then I will recommend The Dark River as a way to advance the story. If it’s disappointing, then I’ll recommend stopping after The Traveller.

I’d better get on that.

You can find more of my book review here.

No comments: