The Traveller, by John Twelve Hawks is the first book in a planned series. The book centres around people known as "The Travellers" mythical people from each age who are capable of leaving our realm (dimension, heaven, hell, etc) and exploring the others. Each time a Traveller has appeared and done this, that person brings about a revolutionary change and challenges the status quo.
The status quo does not like this. In this the book the "status quo" is represented by the ancient Brethren and their army called the Tabula. The Brethren want nothing more then complete control and stability of the human race and of course if Travellers continue to exist this cannot happen. Standing in the way of the Brethren from attacking the Travellers is the Harlequins, trained fighters destined to protect the Travellers from the Tabula.
For centuries a war has been going on between these groups and the Brethren are winning - with the advent of computers and the vast use of surveillance technology, the Brethren have killed nearly all the Travellers and whittled the Harlequin to few in number. Hence, Maya, a reluctant Harlequin, is sent out by her father to protect the last Travellers believed to be in existence.
There are some very obvious references to religion and cyberpunk beliefs. In essence people live in the "Vast Machine" or the "Grid", a prison which monitors everyone on the planet (the entire concept is also called the Panopticon). The people who live in the prison are not aware of anything else outside the Grid and are known as drones or citizens. Some people, like the Harlequins, live off the Grid. There are some obvious similarities with other cyberpunk books or films (the Matrix is something which comes to mind).
There are several religious references as well. Firstly the Travellers are able to separate their "Light" (read that as the soul or the essence of being) from their bodies and travel to other realms. These realms are related to Buddhism- one consists of hungry ghosts, who wish to consume to fill their hunger, but cannot. Secondly the Travellers and the Harlequins date back to the time of Jesus - Jesus was supposedly the first traveller and Paul the first Harlequin. Lastly, the whole order system is reminiscent of the Hindu caste system, with priests on top, warriors beneath them, etc.
The first notable achievement here is the sense of paranoia. While the details in this book are nothing new to anyone who understands the use of surveillance technology and its abuses, it still conveys the feeling of being watched effectively. The concept of privacy is almost non-existent in The Traveller, but most people are not aware of this fact. There are many parallels between 1984 and this book. The message is hammered in- "YOU ARE BEING WATCHED". Hawk spends a whole chapter explaining this message in the form of a running man who tries to escape from the Grid. The whole chapter proves how effective the Panopticon is at social control.
This is brings about the first debatable point of the whole book - because the Brethren do not believe they are doing anything wrong. The author does not paint them as simply evil - but that may well be because the only motive we can be certain of is control. They want control to keep order and peace, something not necessarily "evil". The world is a constant battle ground between personal freedom and the need for protection. This is an aspect of society which will come under fire in the coming years and it is important to bring attention to it.
The second notable achievement is the spirituality present in the book. The author tries very hard to make it apparent that the people in the Vast Machine are soulless, trapped without spirituality. The grid is designed to drain the spirituality away. Again the parallels between the Vast Machine and our consumer culture are frightening. The author never suggests at a particular religion or indeed any religion at all when he refers to spirituality. That is something he subtly tried to avoid. But he does make it apparent that there is more to life then just the material things we have grown accustomed to using. While not suggesting abandoning all modern life, attention is brought to light on how we stagnated ourselves and seem to consume without thinking.
The characters are well developed and most importantly, believable. The Travellers aren’t super humans. They can't dodge bullets or leap across buildings. They need the Harlequins to keep them safe. They can be swayed by power and become "evil". But they can change the way we think and in many respects this is much more powerful.
The book is gripping, well paced, and a cracking story. It may not introduce anything new, but it is great to read and seems to bind all the debates, all the discussion, all the problems predicted about the future of the human race into one book and tied them together very well into a smooth, flowing story. No single part of the story or element of sci-fi and cyberpunk is out of place. The book is graceful and great to read.
As a side note very little is known about the author, John Twelve Hawks. All that is told is that he lives off the Grid. That maybe a marketing gimmick- or something else. That's up to you to decide.