By Jeff VanderMeer
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 26, 2009; C01
THE GOLDEN CITY
By John Twelve Hawks
Doubleday. 358 pp. $25.95
"The Golden City," the final book in John Twelve Hawks's best-selling Fourth Realm trilogy, occupies the middle ground between such love songs to secret societies as Dan Brown's outrageously manipulative "Da Vinci Code" and Umberto Eco's slow but powerful "Foucault's Pendulum." Twelve Hawks adds a distinctly science-fictional element, positing an Earth that serves as the anchor for "parallel worlds, alternative realities." An organization called the Brethren, headed up by the evil Nathan Boone and backed by powerful elites, plots the eventual domination of humankind through the elimination of all forms of privacy. Arrayed against the Brethren are a few Travelers -- people who can pass between the worlds without portals -- and their protectors, called Harlequins.
"The Golden City" features characters familiar from the first two books, like Michael Corrigan, a Traveler who has been blinded by power and works for the Brethren. When the organization sends Michael to another world to find the source of a strange message received by the society's computer, he makes new alliances that may bring the Brethren ever closer to its final objectives. Meanwhile, Michael's brother and erstwhile enemy, Gabriel Corrigan, must attempt to rescue Maya, a Harlequin and Gabriel's onetime lover, who has been trapped in a hellish parallel reality.
Are we headed toward an epic battle between Good and Evil? Of course we are, and it should be a lot of fun because Twelve Hawks has created some genuinely interesting settings. The world Michael visits, for instance, is convincingly alien -- with its autocratic regime, its ritualistic weddings and executions, and its "wet crawler" machines that look like "a crazed mechanic's amalgamation of a farm tractor and an old-fashioned locomotive."
Unfortunately, the delights of "The Golden City" are undercut by its flaws. Twelve Hawks's style just doesn't have the pacing or power to create suspense. We get pages of didactic dialogue and wooden exposition about Michael's mission that could have been dispensed with in three paragraphs and a rousing chorus of "Now off you go!" The novel sputters along in fits and starts, the prose tending to shine only when the author describes some new alternate reality.
"The Golden City" also suffers from characters who act like earnest ciphers, often stripped of any description or original thought. The closest readers get to insight into Michael's character is when, early on, Twelve Hawks writes, "It bothered him that Boone could destroy someone without board authorization," a singularly bloodless observation about cold, calculated murder. But even this potentially chilling detail is undercut by the flatness of the overall scene. Twelve Hawks would have been well-served to read John le Carré or any equivalent master who can provide layered, nuanced prose while still making the reader rush to turn the pages.
As "The Golden City" heads toward the inevitable confrontations, a plan to use the world's computers to combat the Brethren helps reboot the sagging plot. And Gabriel and Maya's relationship also has its moments, as when they lie side by side: Maya "had always thought of love as passion and sacrifice, but it was also like this -- a moment of quiet closeness that felt as if it would last forever." Still, it's ironic that, in a novel about the struggle to maintain our individual freedoms, there's not a single character the reader cares passionately about.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that last year I received a handwritten letter from the author -- or, possibly, someone pretending to be him. The letter, sporting a return address for Penthouse magazine, came in response to an entry on my blog wherein I'd threatened to demote Twelve Hawks to "John Six Kiwis" and then all the way down to "John One Sparrow" if he did not come to my door and reveal his identity. "Dear Jeff," Twelve Hawks wrote, "I went to your house and knocked on your door, but you weren't home. . . . Best, John Twelve Hawks."
VanderMeer's most recent books are "Finch" and "Booklife."