There has been a certain amount of controversy surrounding the recent release of The Traveler but the vast majority of it has focused on the marketing campaign and the status of its author (see this USA Today piece, Sarah’s earlier post and my more recent post). After having
been tricked into buying it, purchasing it to see what the fuss was all about, and now having actually read the book, I though I would comment more fully on the actual content of the novel. But first a few more thoughts about the controversy.
I am of two minds (if not more) on this one. On the one hand I could care less if a publisher decides to hype a particular novel using Hollywood type marketing campaigns or underground Internet campaigns or whatever. On the other hand, it does seem like a waste to spend large sums of money marketing a book that is likely to find a market anyway. Especially when that budget could be spent helping lesser known and more literary works get noticed. But maybe a big seller like this one can fund the literary side (although I am skeptical of the economics of that policy – risky marketing campaigns often bomb meaning even more money spent the next time around not more money for better books, etc.). One danger is that all the hype will over-sell the book so that when you actually read it, you are underwhelmed. More about that later.
A word about the author. The pseudonymous John Twelve Hawks book bio states only that he “lives off the grid.” Is this just another part of the marketing campaign, a clever gimmick for a mid-lister to sneak into blockbuster territory, or is this an honest attempt on the authors part to avoid the celebrity game? I don’t know and I don’t really care. Again, I am focused on the writing not the personality or life story of the author. It certainly feels like a nifty tie in with the book but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
OK, how about the actual content of the novel? The reviews have been positive. I think your reaction is likely to track with your taste. This is obviously not a literary work. (Without getting into the whole genre versus literary thing, I think one can outline broad categories. I think Michelle Herman hit on a useful demarcation: the point of genre is to “find out what happens next.” Literary works, or “artful writing,” are “crafted and thought about and meditated on, really made as opposed to just getting stuff down on a page.”) I didn’t find the writing particularly bad but neither did I find it particularly good either. The point was the plot not the language itself.
Now this is not a criticism per se, but rather a statement. If you like socio-political action adventure, with a does of science fiction perhaps, then you will like The Traveler. If you are looking for a more refined writing style or a more artful story then this is probably not the book for you. Marketing campaign or no, that should have been rather obvious from the start.
Judging it on its own terms I would have to say that The Traveler is an entertaining story with an interesting, if rather far fetched, backdrop. It isn’t revolutionary or awe inspiring but it is suspenseful and engaging in the vein of Robert Ludlum.
For those who haven’t heard the hype, The Traveler has a multi-layered and, at times, complex plot. But a basic overview is possible. Some of what follows could be considered spoilers so reader beware.
First you have the Travelers. These are “an elite group of prophets able to attain pure enlightenment.” Think Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, etc. Then there are the Harlequins, “a band of warriors pledged to protect the Travelers at all costs.” Lastly there are the Tabula, or the Brethren, “ruthless men who are determined to inflict order on the world by invisibly controlling its population” and sworn enemies of the Travelers and thus the Harlequin.
Modern technology and the evermore connected world has given the Tabula the upper hand and they have hunted down and killed most of the Travelers and Harlequins. Enter Maya a former Harlequin who has chosen to reject the life her father had trained her for in order to become a designer in London. But when her aging father asks for her help, and ends up brutally murdered, she is pulled back in to the secret and dangerous life of protecting Travelers. The suspected Travelers are Gabriel and Michael Corrigan. Maya travels to California to try and protect them. At the same time the Tabula are searching for both the Corrigan brothers and Maya.
So what you have are a fantastic back-story that purports to describe a secret history of the world and a dangerous menace to freedom; and a rather traditional action plot involving hand to hand combat, cross country chases, high technology spy techniques, and the battle between good and evil. Michael eventual joins the bad guys while Gabriel stays with Maya and tries to come to terms with his past and his role as a traveler.
I have to say that Hawks does a good job of mixing in a bit of everything for readers to enjoy. There are elements of science fiction, action thriller, social and political commentary, and even a touch of romantic tension. That said, nothing struck me as out of the mainstream of eye poppingly imaginative. Rather, Hawks takes a lot of cultural touchstones and weaves them together.
To wrap all of this up, I found the book entertaining and interesting but not in a knock me over sense. There are books that you find entertaining and worth reading and then there are books that make you go “Wow, I can’t wait until this author’s next book comes out.” The Traveler is in the former category in my book. And in this one sense perhaps the marketing push has a danger of backfiring. I certainly didn’t find this “stunningly suspenseful” nor do I think it deserves to be an “international publishing sensation” based on the book alone (as the flap jacket asserts). But then again my cynicism has already prevented me from buying the claims of most book jackets these days anyways.