I’ve been waiting for a good fusion of romance and urban fantasy, and Melanie Jackson’s Traveler provides just that. It’s a love story set in an inner-city Detroit that has become infested with dark magic.
The world that Jackson created resembles our own, except that it was once populated by all manner of magical beings. At some time in the recent past something killed off most of the fey. The only survivors are those who also have human ancestry, and the repulsive six-legged goblins. The nations of the world expelled millions of goblins, and America (improbably) granted them all refuge: they have become a large, non-voting, non-human minority in the cities of the U.S. Since they are also evil to the core, they’ve been causing a lot of trouble. There are rumors that surgically-altered goblins have killed and replaced business tycoons, politicians, and those members of the entertainment industry for whom physical beauty is not important. “Not Garrison Keillor?” gasps the heroine.
Her name is Io Cyphre, and she’s one of the few part-human, part-fey remaining in the world. She hates and fears the goblins, so she works for a vigilante group called Humans Under Ground (H.U.G.). She and another operative are sent into Detroit’s goblin ghetto, Goblin Town, to gather information about the goblins’ nefarious activities. But Io knows the real reason she’s going. The police have sent another operative, the infamous death fey Jack Frost, into Goblin Town as well. Io’s job is to distract Jack while her fellow agent does the real work – it seems that Io is just Jack’s type. Her first encounter with Jack shows that this is all too true.
To my delight, the author takes an incredibly ancient and dusty fantasy cliché and turns it on its head. The old “we must find the magical crystal before it falls into the wrong hands” plot is surely one of the most overused in the entire genre. By the time we get halfway into this story, those still looking for the crystal are totally on the wrong track. Io grows disenchanted with H.U.G and begins to investigate on her own, and she forms an uneasy, chemistry-laden partnership with Jack. Action, adventure, and some great sex ensue, as Jack and Io uncover the real goblin conspiracy and put their lives on the line to stop it.
Part of what makes all of this so pleasurable is that the author taps into real fears that prey upon the minds of her readers: uncontrolled immigration, rampant drug addiction, terrorism, and deceit by government officials, to name a few. She takes these knotty issues and transforms them into simple ones, by making the villains goblins: disgusting, insectile creatures who are guilty of crimes ranging from genocide and cannibalism to poor personal hygiene and disregard of fire codes. Fight them, and you fight all of society’s ills! Yeah! It’s good dirty fun, I tell you.
All that aside, though, Traveler would be nothing without a kick-butt heroine. Io is smart and tough, with just enough vulnerability to make her courage compelling. The partnership she forms with Jack is just that – they mutually rely upon one another’s strengths and cover each other’s backs. In a magical sense Io is far less powerful than Jack, but on several occasions she demonstrates that she’s the brains of the duo, and she saves his life as well. Jack is sexy, wry, and enigmatic – a yummy hero who never quite steals the spotlight from Io.
I’d like to explain the sensuality rating a little. Io and Jack share several long love scenes, during which several very grown-up acts are described. However, in my opinion, these are rendered in pretty euphemistic language. There’s sexual tension here and a bit of spice, but not scorching sensuality.
The pacing is sometimes a bit off; there are moments that should be action-packed but get bogged down when the characters spend five pages thinking. Also, there’s this little thing that annoyed me: both Jack and Io say (and think) the phrase “time to go” so often, and in so many situations, that it drove me crazy. This may seem like a quibble, but it eventually distracted from the story. This may be an unconscious quirk of the author’s, but an editor should have caught it and made her replace about ten “time to gos” with “Run!” or “Can we leave now?” or even a simple “I’m ready.”
With its nonstop adventure, (otherwise) clever dialogue, tough-girl heroine and supernaturally-attractive hero, this book rarely sets a foot wrong. Traveler is as cool as romance gets.