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The Traveler
John Twelve Hawks
Doubleday, 372 pages

The Traveler
John Twelve Hawks
According to his publisher, John Twelve Hawks (a pseudonym) "lives off the Grid."

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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These days, publishers' marketing campaigns are often as noteworthy as the books they accompany. So it is with John Twelve Hawks's The Traveler, first in a projected trilogy, which blows in on a mighty wind of pre-publication hype. Doubleday, which reportedly paid an enormous sum for the trilogy, started promoting the book more than a year prior to release, using flashy Hollywood-style tactics -- one of which is the apparent mystery that surrounds the author. Supposedly, his true identity is unknown even to his agent and editor; according to his agent, he has no credit cards, no known address, and communicates only by satellite phones, using a voice synthesizer to disguise his voice -- as if to suggest that the paranoid scenario of his novel, which posits a global conspiracy masterminded by a shadowy über-group resembling the Illuminati, were actually real. In an Author Q&A posted on the publisher's website, the pseudonymous Twelve Hawks explains his anonymity: "I live off the Grid by choice, but my decision includes one factor that is relevant to the publication of The Traveler. I want people to focus on the book itself and not on its author." Uh huh. All this cloak and dagger stuff naturally has exactly the opposite effect -- and thus far, appears to be serving both book and author rather well: The Traveler debuted at #13 on the New York Times bestseller list (though it has since dropped a few ranks).

So what about the book behind the buzz?

For thousands of years, an elite caste of warriors known as Harlequins have defended beings called Travelers, whose unique genetic makeup allows them to journey between the six realms of existence. From these realms, Travelers return transformed, ready to pass on the wisdom they have gained to others. All the great teachers and prophets of history have been Travelers: Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed. However, the Travelers have a deadly foe: a powerful secret society called the Brethren, whose goal is the pacification and control of humankind, and who view the spiritual enlightenment and social change preached by Travelers as a deadly threat. For as long as there have been Travelers, the Brethren have been trying to exterminate them, along with their Harlequin protectors.

Now, in the Vast Machine of the twenty-first century, it seems that the Brethren have at last succeeded. There are no known Travelers, and most Harlequins are dead. Exploiting cutting edge science and the world's mania for security, the Brethren have built a global surveillance network modeled after Jeremy Bentham's famous Panopticon (a prison in which prisoners, unable to see their guards, are pacified by being forced to assume that they are constantly observed). All that's needed to make this Virtual Panopticon complete is a computer system powerful enough to process so much data.

Maya is born into a Harlequin family. Trained from childhood in martial arts -- and also in the unique mindset of a Harlequin, which cultivates randomness and limits emotional attachment -- she has rejected her heritage, wanting to live a normal life. But she can't entirely throw off her conditioning, and when a summons arrives from her long-estranged Harlequin father, Thorn, she isn't able to ignore it. Thorn gives her momentous news: two possible Travelers have been discovered, a pair of brothers named Gabriel and Michael Corrigan (Gabriel and Michael -- get it?). Unfortunately, the Brethren have also found them, and they're in urgent need of protection. Thorn, crippled by a violent encounter with Brethren mercenaries, can't defend them -- but Maya can.

Maya refuses, but tragic circumstance intervenes, and she's forced to accept her father's task. She races to California in search of the brothers, but by the time she arrives, Michael is in the hands of the Brethren and Gabriel is on the run. Desperately, Maya tries to keep Gabriel safe long enough to deliver him to the teacher who can help him unlock his Traveler abilities -- while Michael learns the reason why, after centuries of killing Travelers, the Brethren want to keep him and his brother alive.

From an intriguing, if simple, premise -- the triangle of Travelers, Harlequins, and Brethren -- John Twelve Hawks constructs a complex and intensely paranoid scenario in which the everyday reality most of us perceive is, Matrix-like, a distractive illusion stretched across the real, and secret, and very ugly, history of the world. Some people sense what lies beneath, even though they don't realize the full truth; thus Gabriel, who has opted out of the Vast Machine, muses early in the book:

"If you looked at modern civilization in a certain way, it seemed like every commercial enterprise or government program was part of an enormous grid. The different lines and squares could track you down and fix your location; they could find almost everything about you."
Most people, however, are oblivious, and glad to be so. "They barely recognize the prison," a member of the Brethren contemptuously declares, as he reveals how the Brethren have controlled and manipulated the collective consciousness throughout history. It's a clever exploitation of the conflicted post-9/11 mindset, in which the desire for security is exceeded only by the fear of surveillance.

To this secret-history scenario, the novel marries a grab-bag of elements: some woozy Buddhist theology (the six realms of existence), a few bleeding edge scientific concepts (quantum computers, brane theory), plenty of nifty high-tech weaponry and equipment, generous doses of martial arts, and a whole basketful of pop culture themes and tropes (I've already mentioned The Matrix; fans of The X-Files, Alias, and similar TV shows will experience déjà vu throughout -- and wait for the Highlander moment late in the book). If you don't look too hard, it all holds together pretty well. There's no doubt that Twelve Hawks spins a good action yarn; though pausing a little too often for Michael Crichton-style infodumps, the narrative moves swiftly, propelling readers through constantly changing locales and jump cutting between different points of view, unfolding the mysteries at the heart of the story deftly enough to sustain reader curiosity throughout.

Despite its science fictional premise, The Traveler is a thriller, both in conception and execution, and it's marred by one of the central weaknesses of the genre: wooden characterization. Only Maya, believable and sympathetic in her conflict and loneliness, carries any weight. Other characters aren't much more than placeholders, present in the narrative mostly to move the plot along or to reveal essential information to the reader. This goes, unfortunately, for Gabriel -- in whose head we spend quite a bit of time, without getting much of an inkling of what makes him tick (it must be noted that he bears a suspicious similarity to the author's own Grid-abhorring persona) -- and most unfortunately, for Michael, whose act of betrayal at the end of the book, while completely predictable in plot terms, is totally arbitrary in character terms, entirely unmotivated by anything in the brothers' relationship as depicted up until that point.

So does the book live up to the hype? No. To be fair, no book could. Does it stand on its own merits? More or less, though there are some problems. Will it please readers? I have no doubt it will, with its topical theme and the publisher's clever packaging, which urges us all to surrender to our inner paranoid. Talk about a Vast Machine.

Copyright © 2005 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.


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