Traveler
by Melanie Jackson, fantasy (2003)
LoveSpell, $5.99, ISBN 0-505-52533-X


Talk about a classic mismarketing from LoveSpell: that silly cover is no way to do justice to Melanie Jackson's Traveler, the book that kicks off the author's deliciously nasty new series of romantic dark fantasy. In a way, this book is a first of some sort: it's set in an alternative universe that can match Laurell K Hamilton's dark and gory world of beasties and fae creatures, only the focus is definitely on the romance as much as the adventure. If there is such a subgenre that is "romantic dark fantasy and horror", Melanie Jackson is determined to rule that subgenre with style. So if LoveSpell manages to sink this series before it can fly, I am going to be very, very PO'ed.

I'm complaining about the cover because in the story, half-siren-fae heroine Io Cyphre doesn't wear a silly nightrail like that on the story. She wears revealing sexy fuck-me leather outfits or just plain jeans and shirt. The hero, Jonathan "Jack" Frost is a half-death-fae. Both of these magical creatures come together when Io is sent to distract Jack while her male colleague Zayn tries to investigate the mysterious going-ons in Goblin Town, Detroit.

What happens is that in this world, fae creatures, goblins, selkies, trolls, and more coexist (not always peacefully) with humankind. A solar flare in the past killed most of these creatures, leaving mostly mutated goblins around. These goblins are living in Motor City, where they are slowly plotting a sinister plan. As this story reveals in the opening chapter, Ross Perot, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and maybe even Garrison Keillor ("Oh no!", wails Io) are actually goblins. Really. These goblins use magic or surgery (the latter is useful for removal of extra appendages as well as to improve their speech) to pass themselves off as human beings to cause trouble. Goblin crime lords also have many cops and politicians in their payroll. Only HUG (Human Under Ground), of which Io is a member despite her half-fae blood, is aware of the goblins' sinister plans.

Io and Zayn are sent to investigate the mysterious excavations in Goblin Town that may lead to the discovery of a magical gem that can increase the goblins' powers. However, Io soon realizes that there is more than meets the eye in both HUG and Goblin Town. In a conspiracy involving addictive and poisonous goblin fruits that turn humans into junkies, genetic engineering, kidnapping, the upcoming presidential election involving a southern candidate (heh heh heh!), and just mean troll firepower, Io and Jack are soon on a mission to save not just themselves but the entire nation. Wow.

In the paranormal subgenre where the focus inevitably turns to silly sex and magic sex prophecies, it is a relief and even joy to realize that Traveler is no-nonsense dark fantasy and even horror. There are plenty of chilling scenes here involving violent deaths and severe addictions, with the cannibalistic tendencies of the goblins and trolls always casting a chilling pallor over the already dank and eerie post-apocalyptic atmosphere of Goblin Town. Ms Jackson's alternate fantasy world feels like a bizarre nightmare version of a fun house gone amok, but it's a well-written fantasy world that is simultaneously excessive and genuinely frightening all at once. From a rock concert that recalls the excesses of a GG Allin orgy, only with the lesbian rocker diva having four breasts instead of two, to the limo with upholstery made from human skin, I like this whole dark and twisted world a lot.

Ms Jackson's handling of the sexuality between the fae may not be as erotic as some of Laurell K Hamilton's better stuff, but it still works. Jack and Io's sexual chemistry isn't always pretty and can be on the rough side. However, there is a wonderful contradiction in their playful banter with each other as they work together like genuine allies. Jack is ably capable but powerful, but Io can easily match him when it comes to guts, ability, and brainpower. Heck, Io did quite a lot of the actual thinking in this story, good for her. Now to find out why she's named after a cow in Greek mythology, but she is not a brown cow heroine, far from it.

There are some problems in this book that I consider quite minor compared to my enjoyment of this story. The problems are mainly in that there are quite a number of scenes where the characters are talking in ways that seem more like the author's exposition rather than any genuine conversation. But I really don't find these scenes a problem. I'm far too busy enjoying myself as Io and Jack kick ass, cringe at some of the more chilling scenes, and looking at the book cover and muttering curses at the idiotic art department folks at Dorchester. Seriously, this book needs a classy cover with a kickass dude and dudette decked out in sexy leather, not that... that... argh, I don't even want to think of it. And don't get me started on that back blurb.

I have paid $5.99 for Melanie Jackson's thrilling and perverse rollercoaster ride at her personal theme park of a new series, and I don't intend to get off anytime soon. People, if you like books like Laurell K Hamilton's but are looking for a more romantic alternative with all the fantasy and horror elements remaining intact, Melanie Jackson's Traveler is calling your name. Buy it, buy many, many copies so that this book will not languish in some limbo and the series forced to be canceled thanks to the publisher's stupidity, because I'm selfish enough to want to know more about this world created by Melanie Jackson. What are you still sitting here for? Shoo, shoo, go buy the book today!

Rating: 92


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