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Book Review: The Golden City by John Twelve Hawks

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When I came to the end of this novel, all I could think was this can't be the last book. It just can't be. Those words and sundry similarities ran around my brain as I tried to puzzle out if I was confused, disappointed, or missing the point altogether. According to the jacket, this is the final installment in The Fourth Realm Trilogy, but for the life of me, the story feels like it wants a fourth book.

Let me back up. The Fourth Realm Trilogy tells the story of a pair of brothers, Gabriel and Michael, who have inherited the ability to cross the barriers separating our world from five others. They are Travelers. They and those like them (prophets, holy men, and revolutionaries throughout history) can separate their Light from their physical bodies, pass through the four elemental barriers and enter one of the six realms. The realms are each defined by a dominate quality: anger in Hell, hunger in the city of hungry ghosts, innocence in the realm of animals, desire in the realm of humans, envy in the world of the half-gods, and pride in the realm of the gods. Opposing and trying to kill the Travelers is the Brethren, or Tabula, who seduce Michael into working for them and the technologically controlled world called The Vast Machine. Finally, in between, protecting the Travelers without really understanding them are the Harlequins, warriors who live outside the modern world.

It's a wonderfully complex, and sometimes frighteningly real, world which Twelve Hawks populates with authentic characters. Book one, The Traveler, was nothing short of fantastic. It takes our world and views it through a slightly Orwellian lens — as through we are all taking the first step towards 1984 — all the while blending it with the ancient mysticism of Travelers and Harlequins. The conflicts, both large and small, are excellently timed and executed. The Dark River picks up the thread and expands the story. I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the first book because it focused more on the real than the mystical, in opposition to my expectations, but it certainly left me primed for the conclusion. And it is at the end I felt most conflicted.

What I love about this novel is its pacing. The plot moves at something like a quick walk, developing both the story and characters in a thoroughly satisfying manner. Maya, Gabriel's Harlequin protector and love-interest, is still trapped in the first realm, and her rescue is handled beautifully. I was especially interested in the culture shock she was forced to work through in the wake of returning to the fourth realm. Likewise, Gabriel's acceptance of his role as a counter-culture leader is given a measured tread, avoiding a chosen-one sense of inevitability. He, along with Maya and other supporting characters, is organizing the Resistance, ordinary people who try to live outside of the technological world's traceable habits.

This world, called variously The Vast Machine and the Panopticon, is based on our own Western culture's tendency to record all our purchases, movements, phone calls, and e-mails. The Tabula is using every science at their disposal to create a virtual prison, in which the actions of citizens are tracked and even predicated by forces outside of their control. Michael has crossed into the fifth realm, met the half-gods, and brought back technology which will bring this Big Brother state closer to reality. I've not seen this sort of surveillance-freedom conflict thrown into such sharp relief since Orwell's dystopian masterpiece. The fact that it is personified through the two brother Travelers serves to heighten the immediacy of the reader's experience.

At the end of the day, however, all of this excellent story telling is drastically undercut by the marked lack of a satisfying resolution to the novel. In order to fully explain myself, I'm afraid I have to break one of my own rules here and explicitly discuss the ending. If you want to find out for yourself (a behavior I always advocate), then skip this paragraph all together. Gabriel has tracked down Michael, and the pursuit crosses into the barrier realms. At the last one, fire, they finally meet. During the ensuing confrontation, Michael is trapped beneath a burning beam too heavy for Gabriel to shift. Left with no options, he accepts their fate and "felt as if all his questions had been answered….And a luminous field appeared in front of him, infinite, expanding, accepting." Now, the fire barrier is a town which continually burns down and regenerates. That leads me to conclude that the Travelers may survive as well, but I have no way of knowing; the line quoted above is the last we see of them. Meanwhile, Maya, who is pregnant with Gabriel's child by this time (but hasn't told him), has no clearer understanding of the Travelers' fate than the reader. All she seems to be certain of is that he baby will follow in its father's footsteps. And then the book ends.

I simply do not see how this can be considered a satisfying ending for either author or reader. The story is not finished. Indeed, I can see it before me now, banging its three books on my table demanding a fourth. In the last chapter, there is a quaint race of balsa-wood boats. The narrative tone suggests that it is metaphoric of a larger truth, but to my eyes it seemed only to reinforce that the end is yet another beginning. The child Maya is carrying must have some role to play, otherwise its promise is wasted. Perhaps, like the Hitchhiker's Guide "trilogy," we are dealing with a misnomer. I sincerely hope that is the case, because without a sequel, this book simply does not work. If, however, a denouement does appear, The Golden City will be truly finished, and John Twelve Hawks will prove himself as the writer I believe him to be.

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