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John Twelve Hawks' The Golden City: Not Recommended. Darn.

I really, really would like to be able to recommend John Twelve Hawks’ third book in his Traveler series, The Golden City. I wanted very much to enjoy the book. I hoped that the book would make some kind of sense. But I haven’t enjoyed the book, it doesn’t make sense, and I can’t recommend it.

When I came across first novel The Traveler two years ago, I was sympathetic to the theme of the novel: that society has become dominated by surveillance programs squeezing the freedom out of human action and leading inevitably to the cruel exercise of power. But ideological sympathy isn’t enough to get me to enjoy a book: I’ve been trying to read William Gibson’s Spook Country for two years now but I find the book so arid, cold and dark that I struggle to continue with it. The Traveler, on the other hand, is a really enjoyable book, in no small part because of its traps and puzzles. John Twelve Hawks (the author’s pseudonym) follows characters trapped by surveillance systems and works through the ways they cope (compliance, conversion, a regimen of emotional control, a random number generator, taking it to the roof, warfare) with a modicum of intelligence to happy or bitter ends. Because Twelve Hawks clearly defines and sticks to his novel’s internal rules in The Traveler, I felt swept along as a reader into the traps set for characters. My pulse quickened as I, too, desperately searched for a way out as the forces of government omniscience drew closer, ever closer. That’s how I developed a feeling of connection to The Traveler’s trapped characters.

In the second book in the series (The Dark River), the tightly-knit rules and challenges of living in a surveillance society become looser and literally less tethered to this plane of reality, but for the sake of the first novel’s characters (and a can’t-put-it-down creepy depiction of Hell) I waded through it. The only reason I finished reading The Golden City was to write this review.

This third book is utterly missing the intelligent characters and the rigorous structure that made The Traveler such a joyride. Instead, we learn that brothers Gabriel and Michael (how archangelic) have come to stand against one another on opposite sides of the fight for freedom and control, saving the world with their super powers of traveling to astral realms of something-or-otheriness. That’s a disappointment on three counts.

First, it’s a signal that the author has abandoned hope that ordinary people can break their own way out of the surveillance society. Instead, he’s decided we need a leader with super astral travel powers to guide us, a nod to the sort of deification that George Orwell warned us is an integral part of totalitarian government. That’s distasteful.

Second, the alternate astral planes of reality from which the good Gabriel and eeeeevil Michael derive their powers are arbitrary in nature. There’s a realm of animals, and there’s a realm of shell people, and there’s a realm empty of people altogether, and there’s another realm of people who do this and that, and one of the realms wants to communicate with us by quantum supercomputer, and one of the other realms has people who want to travel over to our realm but can’t. In one realm you can’t eat anything or you’ll be trapped there forever, in another realm it’s ok to eat the food and drink a blue liquid that makes you feel odd but doesn’t hurt you really, and in a third realm there’s a flash flood. Does that sound like a laundry list? It sure reads like a laundry list, and the laundry list is never explained, never drawn together into a scheme that makes sense. Why doesn’t the author throw in some Midichlorians while he’s at it?

Third, the transformation of these two angelic characters from sympathetic allies in the first book into opposing avatars of good and evil in the third book has no compelling reason for it. All we get are a few conversations in which the good Gabriel says (to our relief) “I see now,” or the evil Michael says (to our horror), “I see now.” Although the brothers start in the same place, they never look back as they grow more distant from one another. Gabriel never questions his path as a savior; Michael never questions the wisdom of ripping people apart with hooks. That makes these characters dumb and stupid in the old sense of mute, incomprehensible opacity; they are ciphers to the reader.

Gabriel and Michael aren’t the only characters in The Golden City who aren’t too bright. There’s a race of “half-gods” in some astral plane who have perfected an ultimate system of violent social control over the cattle-like people who live there; it’s the author’s depiction of what will happen to our own world if surveillance is allowed to expand unchecked. These “half-gods” are really smart; they’ve figured out how to keep everyone, everywhere in line in their world, and they want to take over our world. The only problem is that they can’t figure out how to cross over. So they strike a deal with Michael: if they give Michael some new supertechnology, Michael will have to help them cross over to Earth. Michael agrees, but only on the condition that he be allowed to go back home for a bit first. He promises he’ll come back and help them with the whole interdimensional dominion thing later on. Oh, OK, sure, say the super geniuses, here’s the advanced technology, come back soon, and have fun storming the castle! Michael walks off with the new supertechnology, cackling, with no plan of ever coming back, as the super genius “half gods” smile and wave goodbye like country bumpkins. Dumb, dumb, dumb!

More really stupid characters: a henchman turns from evil to good after he decides he doesn’t want to kill children, even though he’s been coldly killing children through the first two books. Why the change? The observers behind the surveillance cameras are so good at tracking people down that they can find and kill a renegade on an off-grid ferry in Canada. Yet they never find the London hideout of our anti-surveillance heroes, even though the cameras watch everything and everybody in London, because they go to a secret room hidden behind a drum shop! Why the difference? The Vast Machine is clever enough to find a pedophile killer with just the right set of capabilities for striking fear into the populace, is clever enough to pluck him out of a prison in Thailand and shuttle him all the way to California, but is too stupid to keep him from running out of a hotel room. Dumb, dumb, dumb!

With characters who’ve moved from whip-smart to dense, and with settings that have moved from tight and well-defined to arbitrary, the Traveler series has really fallen apart at its end. It just doesn’t make sense anymore, even on its own terms. Darn.

12 comments to John Twelve Hawks' The Golden City: Not Recommended. Darn.

  • Jacob

    Seems like very few authors can keep a good series together… Its like many of them start grasping at straws. I remember that the last couple books of the Guslinger series left me underwhelmed. Its like King changed into a different writer (which I guess he did). This one sounds infinatly worse. Sorry to hear, its crushing as a reader to get involved with characters in a book and have the whole thing fall apart because of bad writing…

  • Azur Spar

    John Twelve Hawks wrote the book that HE wanted to write. Not the book that YOU wanted him to write.

    The Traveler is the first widely read libertarian novel of my generation. Do I agree with the spiritual element found in the books? Not at all. It doesn’t match my own beliefs. But Hawks stayed true to his own unique vision.

    • Jim

      Well, of course he did. Every author writes the book that HE or SHE wanted to write. My review isn’t critiquing the author’s vision; it’s critiquing his sloppy execution, especially on Book Three.

      And, by the way, from my reading of the three books it’s pretty clear that John Twelve Hawks is a civil libertarian, but quite critical of unfettered economic power. The Vast Machine is comprised in no small part of corporations hawking their product.

  • andrew

    I am sorry but you have to be a fucking dumbshit to not understant what is going on in the third book. It is written so simply that a child could understand it. I hope you don’t reveiw more heavy minded books or your brain might explode.

  • Lorraine

    good reply Andrew.

  • Sheila

    I agree with the reviewer. “The Golden City” was a tremendous disappointment. To begin, the writing lost its intensity, flow and cohesion. At one point I questioned whether I was reading the same author who had created 2 marvellous, intense, thought provoking, page-turning adventures. The characters in the 3rd book were separated from each other and never came together until the last few chapters. They wandered through the book, shadows of their former selves. We understood the illusion created by the half gods but their message was incomplete, lacked depth and seemed cartoonish. The relationship with the father Matthew was all build up but had no substance. And finally, this whole journey was supposed lead to a climax in which Gabriel explains why we should fight the vast machine. But by the time we struggled through the pumpkin patches, the empty rooms of the supposed true gods, watched villians who ordered wholesale slaugther suddenly become child loving saints, travelled with a sinner who became a priest, the message fell on deaf ears. I can’t even recommend this book to those who loved the first two. This book was clearly rushed, it reads like rough draft. Mr John Twelve Hawks is a talented writer and this book does not reflect his best effort.

  • Nadine

    i get the mpression that you didn;t read the first book at all, and probably only scanned through the second.
    Throughout both, the mysticism of the, as you put it, ‘astral realms’, was made reference to.
    in the second, visitations to those realms we clearly detailed … anyone who has actually read these books would know that it was integral to the story from the first few chapters of the first book.

    seems to me that you only read the 3rd book so you could review it, might have helped if you had bothered to read the others

    • Jim

      How interesting that these are your impressions and what seems to you. Tell me more about your impressions; they will help me to understand you a little bit better. I was a big fan of the first book and thought the second book was all right if not overwhelming. I’m just not satisfied with what satisfies you. That I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I haven’t carefully read all of the books.

    • Anonymous

      I hate to tell you too Nadine but impression is spelled, I-M-P-R-E-S-S-I-O-N. Not mpression. And if you say your finger slipped or something then I have some advice: RE-READ YOUR WORK. It might help!:)

  • Havok36

    I liked the first Traveler book, but when my favorite character, Lawrence the awesome-super-spy, died, I kinda just skip though the rest of the first book. I haven’t even gone near the next books and don’t plan to. I have just really have been reading the endings of the last two books on wiki….I know it’s shameful!:)

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