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"The Traveler" by John Twelve Hawks; Doubleday ($24.95)
First, let's get up to speed on the lowdown.
There are these six realms. The first corresponds to what churchgoers call hell. The second is filled with hungry ghosts out of a George Romero script. The third is inhabited by animals who don't have a clue about anything beyond their own existence. The fourth is where we live. The fifth and sixth are the realms of half-gods and gods, respectively.
According to "The Traveler," John Twelve Hawks' first novel, most of us in the fourth realm live on the Grid: "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."
A few select people have the ability to leave their bodies behind and visit the other realms. Known as Travelers, they have included among their number several of humanity's great teachers, such as Jesus and the Buddha. Since what they learn from their visits is at variance with what the rest of us take for granted, the effect of what they teach tends to be unsettling. This puts them at odds with those whose aim is to exercise power over society.
An order of highly trained warriors, known as Harlequins, are pledged to protect the Travelers. But another group, also highly trained - referred to by the Travelers and Harlequins as the Tabula, but known among themselves as the Brethren - is pledged to destroy both Travelers and Harlequins.
What is remarkable about "The Traveler" is how well the author has transmuted this sociopolitical piffle into a highly effective thriller.
The book opens with a 12-year-old girl named Maya being trained for combat by Thorn, her Harlequin father. He does this by exposing her to a football riot in London. Fast forward 14 years. Maya, who has been trying to lead a normal life, goes to Prague to visit Thorn.
The intervening years have not be good to the Travelers and Harlequins. Thanks to computers and high-tech surveillance devices, the Brethren have managed to track down and kill all of the known Travelers and most of the Harlequins. But Thorn has learned of two brothers in Los Angeles who may have the gift of traveling. He wants Maya to go there and protect them. He can't himself, because his last encounter with the Brethren has left him confined to a wheelchair.
Maya wants nothing to do with any of it. But then she learns that she has been followed and has led the Brethren to her father, whom she finds gruesomely murdered. So she's off to L.A. to find Michael and Gabriel Corrigan - and her father's killer.
One could relate many more details and still not give away even a fraction of the plot of this complex, well-paced book. No cheap thrills here. The sense of menace is pervasive throughout, and the characters are all well-drawn. The obvious comparison is with the "Matrix" films, but author Twelve Hawks provides much more detailed - and even somewhat plausible - background for his tale.
A one-sentence biographical note on the dust-jacket tells us only that John Twelve Hawks "lives off the Grid," and the book's publicist assures that he is exceedingly protective of his privacy and, presumably, his identity. We also learn on the last page that this is but "Book One of the Fourth Realm." Turns out this is the start of a trilogy - just like the "Matrix" films (and yes, film rights have been sold).
It's a very good start. Here's hoping Twelve Hawks can find enough fictional thermals to soar the distance.
(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.