I read a lot of books. Where most people would turn on the television if they're bored and have nothing to do, I'd rather pick up a favourite book and re-read it for the hundredth time. It's only been recently that I've started having to figure out what it is I like about a book in order to review it. It's been a lot harder than I had thought it would be, because I had never really thought about what it was that made something work for me or not. I either liked something or I didn't and that was all I needed to know.
But obviously a review demands more than just saying I liked a book or not. There are the obvious things to talk about — character, plot, pacing, and originality, for example — and while they are important to a story, any decent craftsperson can follow basic principles and combine those elements into something that physically resembles a novel.
But it's the intangible elements of a novel that separate the ones I want to read over and over again from those that I'll trade in at a used book store for something else. The problem with intangibles is, well, they are intangible, so it's kind of difficult to say turn to page 26 and you'll see an example of what I mean.
The second installment of John Twelve Hawk's Fourth Realm Trilogy, The Dark River (published by the Doubleday Canada imprint of Random House Canada) is a really good example of a book where that's the case. On the surface it appears to be nothing more than a well written, suspense/fantasy novel. The characters are interesting, and the plot intriguing, but even while reading it I wasn't aware of it having any real distinguishing characteristics.
The story is the familiar paranoid vision of history where a secret cabal of individuals have lurked behind the scenes throughout the centuries pulling the strings of politicians to ensure the world runs the way they want it to. Of course there have been the brave few who have opposed them, those who would try and tell humans about an alternative way of living and life was about more than just doing Squire Bob's bidding (or that era's equivalent)
Here's where one of the first quirks comes in. The people who pop up every so often to disrupt the social order aren't just those with some socio-political ax to grind, but have obtained enlightenment in regard to humanity's potential. They have become known as Travelers due to the manner in which they have gained their awareness.
Travelers are literally able to allow their souls/spirit/light/ – whatever you wish to call it – to step out of their physical being and travel to four other realms, or planes of human existence. Three of these realms are examples of what happens when we surrender to our baser urges, while the fourth shows what happens when we live up to our potential. Having borne witness to all of this, Travelers come back to our realm, the Fourth Realm, to pass on their knowledge and encourage people to strive towards a better life.
Now as Travelers are pretty defenseless, another group of people called Harlequins have made it their mission to defend the Travelers at all costs from the Tabula (the cabal previously mentioned). In the twentieth century the Tabula have managed to track down and kill all the known Travelers and the majority of the Harlequin.
The means they have used to accomplish this, our increasingly sophisticated information gathering and surveillance technology, are also the same means they are using to approach their goal of achieving complete control over all humans. If you are part of the Vast Machine – use a credit card, a bank machine, a driver's licence, a passport, or anything else that leaves an electronic trace of you – they can track your every movement on a day-to-day, if not moment-to-moment basis.
In book one of the series, The Traveler, we met one of the last Harlequins, Maya, and two of the last Travelers, Gabriel and Michael Corrigan. When the Tabula have a change of plan and decide they need the use of a Traveler, they capture Michael and convert him to their side. The Black River picks up the story with everyone finding out that Gabriel and Michael's father Matthew, another Traveler long thought dead, is still alive.
Again it is a fairly standard thriller/adventure plot with Maya, Gabriel, and their group having to elude the Tabula in New York City, London, and Ireland. But the action is also taken over into the other realms. When Gabriel and Maya find Mathew he has been Traveling for months, and his body is completely inert. Gabriel makes the decision to try and find him and ends up being trapped in the first realm where people are condemned to kill each other until the last person is alive, and then they are all reborn again and the process starts anew.
Although Maya is not a traveler she must find a way into the other realms in an attempt to find Gabriel. She succeeds in crossing over and rescues Gabriel but is unable to follow him back and allows him to leave without her. As a Harlequin it is her sworn duty to ensure his survival at all costs, no matter what the sacrifice might entail.
To hear me talk about it, the series doesn't sound all that special on the surface. But something about it made it stay with me after I finished reading the second book. Throughout the day I would find myself suddenly thinking about it without even noticing I had started doing so.
What John Twelve Hawks has managed to do is create characters, Maya and Gabriel, who are incredibly human in spite of whatever extraordinary powers they have. Neither of them asked to be who they are, and in fact Maya resisted it as much as possible. As the story has progressed they have both not only accepted who they are, but proceeded to define it in their terms, not as they are supposed to according to tradition.
It's that humanity, and both of their struggles to hold on to it, that makes them so memorable. While other stories may feature fantastic characters like elves or hobbits doing the extraordinary, things we expect of them in other words, these two are very human and perform equivalent tasks. They have no magical powers that will stop bullets or prevent a sword from slicing them open. They make mistakes out of anger and frustration, and they follow their hearts.
Maya and Gabriel are the intangible that makes The Dark River the type of book that will live on in your mind long after you've read it. Certainly it is as well crafted and plotted as any other book of this type, but unlike others, a human heartbeat drives the pulse of this novel.