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Futuristic 'Traveler' takes a dark and mystical trip

The Traveler, By John Twelve Hawks, Doubleday, 464 pp., $24.95

Call me a cynic, but my sneaking suspicion is that John Twelve Hawks, the elusive author of ''The Traveler," is not really the novice novelist living ''off the grid" that he claims to be. Nope, my hunch is that Twelve Hawks is a laid-off ''Star Trek: Enterprise" writer who made a brilliant pitch to publisher Doubleday (''Imagine 'Alias' meets 'The Matrix' ") and thus happily bred his next cash cow.

''The Traveler," first in the Fourth Realm Trilogy, is a commercially sublime mix of mysticism, martial arts, and libertarian paranoia. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I like a fast-paced plot, colorful characters, and politically, intellectually, or sexually provocative content as much as the next fantasy/sci-fi reader. Unfortunately, this book doesn't deliver on any of these dimensions, which is surprising, because all of the ingredients are in place. It has a tough heroine, two brothers (one good, one probably evil), international travel, interdimensional travel, motorcycles, snakes, samurai swords, a search for a lost father, and a dystopian vision of a world in which the quest for security leads a complacent populace to surrender its civil liberties to an evil military-industrial cabal.

Maya, the heroine, is the daughter of a Harlequin, a small secret group of warriors sworn to protect an even smaller, more secret group of Travelers. The Travelers have an inherited ability to project their energy out of their bodies and into other realms -- an ability that they develop under the guidance of, yes, a small, secret group of mentors known as Pathfinders. When Maya's father is assassinated by the Tabula, well-heeled, well-connected megalomaniacal foes of the messy disorder that civil liberties create, she becomes a reluctant Harlequin herself.

The Travelers she sets out to protect are Gabriel and Michael (Get it? Gabriel, Angel of Mercy; Michael, Angel of Judgment), two brothers who have grown up ''off the grid" -- without Social Security numbers, credit cards, telephones, frequent shopper cards, or any of the other conveniences of daily life -- and lost their father under mysterious circumstances. Gabriel has chosen to remain untrackable and drives a motorcycle. Michael, on the other hand, is in business, has a credit card, and drives a car. Guess who's cooler.

As usual, it's the villains who are most interesting. The Tabula base their quest for social control on the Panopticon, a prison designed such that the incarcerated can never see or hear the guards but must assume that they're being watched all the time. The operative principle is that if leaders can get their citizens to accept that they are perpetually under surveillance, they will adhere to the social order because they don't believe they can get away with violating it. And if these leaders can get citizens to welcome this surveillance -- such as by changing the name of a government program from the ''Total Information Awareness System" to the ''Terrorism Information Awareness System," so much the better.

The parallel to these United States this very day are obvious, and the potential of this political parable is rich. Alas, the central ideas -- freedom good, control bad; randomness good, order bad -- are barely fleshed out. In fairness, I did keep turning the pages, because I can forgive wooden dialogue and cartoon characters if the ideas are provocative. But Twelve Hawks failed to develop what was a potentially interesting idea into anything deeper than what you can hear on talk radio. Now I just hope that when the inevitable movie is released, Keanu Reeves won't be in it.

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