Middle volumes of trilogies, particularly trilogies that are not complete, are tricky things to do. One has to weigh not just the expectations brought over from the first volume, but also the realization that in most cases, such volumes begin and end without clear resolutions in sight. It would as if one wanted to judge Shakespeare by Acts II and III of his plays, experiencing only the buildup and the climax of the first half, without seeing any resolution. Middle volumes can be quite frustrating for readers, especially if they end on such infamous cliffhangers as Frodo's apparent "death" in The Two Towers. In some ways, this describes what the reader will experience in reading John Twelve Hawks' second volume in his The Fourth Realm trilogy, The Dark River.
In the first volume, The Traveler (which I reviewed here), we were introduced to a world in which privacy is being sacrificed in the name of security. It was a world in which those who dared to go beyond the confines of this realm, called Travelers, to discover elements of truth about ourselves and our possibilities, were being hunted down mercilessly by a shadow organization called the Tabula (or Brethren, as they referred to themselves). A world in which there were secret fighters, called Harlequins, established to protect these Travelers and to help them with their task of spreading hope of breaking the chains of bondage that were slowly enveloping individuals, tying them closer and closer to the Vast Machine.
In this first volume, the pace was very rapid, as the Harlequin Maya meets up with members of a religious society associated with a previous Traveler in order to protect a newly-discovered Traveler (and son of a Traveler), named Gabriel Corrigan. However, Gabriel's brother, Michael, has been taken in by the Tabula, who have their own nefarious plans involving him, plans which Maya thrawts near the end of The Traveller. The pace there was very rapid, as befitting of a thriller, and revelation after revelation leads to violent deaths, near-fatal mistakes, and breathtaking escapes, all hallmarks of an exciting thriller. So how does the middle volume, The Dark River, hold up in comparison?
Instead of following one standard rule for sequels (longer, bloodier, more action-packed than the first), The Dark River instead chooses to develop some of its characters. There is more behind the sexual tension between Maya and Gabriel that was revealed in The Traveler, and Michael's interactions with the Brethren gets quite a bit more intriguing, in a way that is true to the character sketch that was drawn in The Traveler. There are many consequences shown for the actions taken both in the previous volume and within this one. For as Gabriel and Michael's father, Matthew Corrigan, is revealed to be alive still, people are going to suffer as the Tabula and the Harlequins race to discover his location, a race that will take them across the globe, from New York to London to places more ancient than either, a race that will send one truly into "the dark river" in a chilling conclusion that will leave the reader wanting to know how that person can survive to meet another day and fight.
When reading The Dark River, I took pains to consider it within the larger confines of the story being presented and not just as a volume on its own. There are no dramatic rescues at the end, there are no movements to make one cheery about having read it. No, this is more like Tolkien's The Two Towers in mood. The dark, oppressive forces are on the move, and the heroes can barely escape their brutal march. Many beloved characters meet their ends in this tale, and one is left wondering how one is going to escape.
Such tales do not lend themselves for the best of reviews. Many readers want a happy, or at least hopeful ending, but there is scant evidence of this here. It is truly an Empire Strikes Back feel to this volume. The characters have more depth, but also more sorrows and conflicts. It is not just a tale about fighting against the Panopticon, but also one about our own conflicts and desires. As such, it makes the re-reading of The Traveler a deeper one, as one begins to see more clearly the paths the characters shall choose to follow, paths that might lead them into a vision of Hell.
As far as writing goes, the slower pace is a boon, as to try to meet or to exceed the rapid, helter-skelter pace of the first volume would only lead to burnout for readers reading both. And although the characters have more depth in The Dark River, it bears reminding that this is more of a thriller-type of story than anything else (although there are certainly other elements at play here), so certain situations might seem to be a bit too "pat" for many who are used to other genres of literature. But taking it as what it aims to be, a thrilling cautionary tale about ourselves and our own futures, The Dark River expands the game and ought to serve as a nice bridge between The Traveler and the upcoming final volume in The Fourth Realm trilogy.
Summary: The Dark River is the second volume in The Fourth Realm trilogy (first volume, The Traveler, was released in 2005) that goes deeper into the story of the fight between the Harlequins and their wards, the Travelers, against the Tabula, who are bent on insuring that all humans are under the watchful eye of the Panopticon. Told in third-person PoV, this tale is not as fast-paced as the first, but has enough character and plot developments to warrant a read. It serves as a good bridge into the upcoming final volume in the trilogy. Recommended for those who enjoy thriller-type tales.
Release Date: July 10, 2007 (US) Hardcover, July 16, 2007 (UK) Hardcover, Tradeback