Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Matthew Reilly's Jack West Trilogy: Seven Deadly Wonders, The Six Sacred Stones, The Five Greatest Warriors

Seven Deadly Wonders. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 401.

The Six Sacred Stones. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008, pp. 447.

The Five Greatest Warriors. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010, pp. 381.

While this review focuses on Matthew Reilly's last three books, given its focus it seems only fair to start off with a bit of context, taking a look at his earlier work, and what Reilly has said about what he's trying to do in it. In a note at the beginning of the North American edition of Reilly's first novel Contest (1996)1, Reilly notes that it was "a prototype for a different style of book--a superfast-paced, absolutely nonstop thriller . . . It is like a sports car stripped down to its raw components--wheels, frame, engine. No fancy paintwork. No fancy upholstery. Just raw nonstop energy" (ix-x). The results read more like a summer blockbuster, or even a video game, than a conventional novel, and he has since then continued writing in the same spirit, establishing in his next book (and first properly published book) Ice Station (1998) the pattern he would follow through Temple (1999) and Area 7 (2001).

Their basic structure was a secret three-way duel between special-operations forces teams at the remote, exotic, dangerous site named in the title over a mysterious and spectacular "MacGuffin" that plays out in something like near real-time, with a hint of grand conspiracy and paranormal/science fiction plot elements, typically involving historical mysteries and speculative technology. (In Ice Station, the scene was an Antarctic outpost where what may be an alien spacecraft has been discovered under the ice; in Temple, Amazonian ruins containing a rare extraterrestrial metal; in Area 7, a secret base in the American desert southwest.) In particular, those set-ups tend to involve normally friendly actors driven to rivalry by an extreme development. (In Ice Station the American heroes are up against the British and the French in the fight over the spacecraft in a lesson on old-fashioned international relations realism; in Temple, various branches of the American armed forces fight one another in a particularly extreme form of interservice rivalry; while in Area 7, the roster of enemies includes a traitorous American Air Force General taking the rift between "Red" and "Blue" states to its outermost limit.)

And of course, the story is dominated by heavily detailed, spectacular action sequences in which Reilly takes enormous liberties with everything from the performance of weapons systems, to the laws of physics--and of course, with simple logic. In line with action thriller convention, his set pieces presume

* Heroes with the bad luck to keep getting into awful, bloody messes, and the good luck to generally extricate themselves from them in one piece.
* Bad guys who can on demand raise legions of willing cannon fodder utterly unable to shoot straight.
* An indifference to logistics, one expression of which is the tendency of everyone to bring too much firepower along for any job. ("Bring along a rocket launcher to a drive-by shooting? Sure, why not?")
* The propensity of everything to explode in a giant fireball when attacked.
* An affinity for theatricality at the expense of practicality on the part of the principals--as with the villains who insist on explaining themselves before sticking the heroes in overly complicated death traps and stalking off; the propensity of the antagonist to force the protagonist into playing intricate games (if only as cover for some other, more practical objective); and the readiness of so many good guys and bad guys to cast aside the guns and resort to fisticuffs instead.

Many of these scenes take place in hyper-elaborate settings (like the underground base in Area 7) that add greatly to their complexity. The result is that they often run for fifty pages and come with accompanying diagrams, because words alone are not always enough to paint a clear picture of what's happening. In describing them his prose reads in places like a film script, complete with descriptions of screenshots, and in others like a fanboy who has just walked out of such a movie really excited and is breathlessly telling his friend all about what he saw (as is usually the case in the passages ending with exclamation points, of which there are many).

While often straining credulity to and past the breaking point with his plots, Reilly gets credit for not subjecting the reader to rehashes of tired scenarios, and while his development of them is often extravagantly over the top, many of them actually contain the germ of an intriguing idea or two. Reilly also tends to steer clear of the nationalistic chest-thumping, xenophobic appeals and political propagandizing that unfortunately characterize so much action-thriller writing (which would, perhaps, be a liability in a writer from such a small home market as Australia, and so more dependent on appealing to an international readership).

Additionally, while one may well take Reilly to task for the roughness of his prose, the slighting of character development, and the preposterousness of much of the action, it is still striking that he can come so close to bringing the feel of a summer blockbuster to a work of print fiction, which he does most of the time.

Reilly refers to these early novels as "Matthew Reilly 1.0," in contrast with "Matthew Reilly 2.0," which began with his novel Scarecrow, featuring the star of Ice Station and Area 7, Marine Recon Captain Matthew Schofield. While retaining the pacing, action sequences and essential plot elements of the previous books (conspiracies, science fiction-al touches), they offer more intricate plots, globe-trotting sequences of events that take his heroes from one exotic place to another, and (somewhat) more developed characterization.

Reilly's Jack West, Jr. trilogy--Seven Deadly Wonders (originally, Seven Ancient Wonders), The Six Sacred Stones and The Five Greatest Warriors--continues in this "2.0" framework, featuring the new, titular character. Like Shane Schofield, West is a long-serving special operations forces officer (Australian Special Air Service) with striking, visible battle scars (he has a titanium arm), and abilities bordering on the superhuman. As in the "Scarecrow" novel Area 7, a special child is central to the plotline.

Additionally, as in Temple, archaeological adventure is blended with international intrigue, but in his new globe-trotting style. His approach to this is much more Clive Cussler than Dan Brown (to whom he tips his hat more than once, not least in his protagonists' own visit to the Louvre in Six Sacred Stones), though he outdoes even Cussler in his conceptual audacity (and especially unlike Brown, it helps that he never means for us to take him seriously), cobbling a full-blown mythology centered on the famed seven wonders of the ancient world (the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria) out of Masonic and other occult conspiracy theories, and packing each of these books with enough archaeological surprises for a half dozen Dirk Pitt novels.

Specifically it turns out that those archaeological wonders include key pieces of a mysterious mechanism which offers the only way of averting an imminent, astronomical, extinction-level catastrophe--which will also confer enormous power on the party that completes the procedure. The United States and the European Union became rivals in resolving the mystery, and acquiring and using the lost treasures, while a club of small countries gets together to enter the fray as a third force. (Accordingly West leads not an Australian team, but a multinational one. Consisting mostly of operatives from English-speaking ex-British colonies-besides Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada and Jamaica are represented-it also counts in its membership a Spaniard and a special forces soldier from the United Arab Emirates, with an Israeli operative joining in soon after.) As the narrative proceeds, still other actors enter the fray, on the side of one of the three initial competitors, or striking out for themselves.

Together the three books make up far and away the largest and most complex of Reilly's adventures. Additionally, the characterization is somewhat more developed than in any of Reilly's previous books, aspects of West's past figuring into the plot, from the origin of his handy bionic arm, to his long-running struggle with a father and brother on the opposite side of the conflict, and his own fatherly relationship toward young Lily, developed in surprising depth and even having its tender moments.

Nonetheless, despite the more personal bits, and many long stretches of dialogue in which the protagonists attempt to unravel the central mystery, the novels retain the impressive pace of the earlier books, and may even be considered Reilly's most video game-like to date. Much of the narrative has his heroes moving from one booby-trapped maze to another, getting there just in time to get into a firefight with a competitor already there, or arriving just after they did. Still, Reilly offers enough variety in the settings and the action sequences to keep the pattern from feeling tiresomely repetitive in the way it easily could have been. (Journeying far beyond the list of seven sites, the incidents range from museum capers to rescues of captured comrades held in secret prisons on top of the tomb-raiding.)

However, even as Reilly manages to periodically top himself in the grandeur and audacity of the action sequences, he does still overreach from time to time, most problematically at the start of Seven Deadly Wonders. Even by Reilly's standards it's a tough read, and I almost didn't get past it. Despite the improved characterizations, the romance between West and his teammate Zoe Kissane is more thinly than subtly developed, and it may have been inevitable that such a large and diverse cast of (mostly) one-dimensional characters caught up in wildly over-the-top situations will contain much that is ridiculous, and even offensive. (While it was far from the only instance where this happened, I wondered what to make of the preposterous subplot in which the "Blood Brotherhood" attempted to insure that the catastrophe would in fact take place and destroy the world.)

The transitions from one book to the next are also problematic. Seven Deadly Wonders seems to conclude satisfactorily in itself, and the ritual reversing West's accomplishment that marks the start of Six Sacred Stones felt like an excuse to serve up more of this brand adventure rather than a natural continuation of it. Additionally, the resolution of the cliffhanger with which Six Sacred Stones ends (in the opening of Five Greatest Warriors) seems rather pedestrian. Readers hoping to get at the bigger mystery--who created this puzzle in the first place?--will be disappointed by the conclusion at the end of that last book.

Reflecting on these works it is easy for me to understand how many readers can be put off by them, but I found much to enjoy in them all the same. And for all their compromises and flaws I would go so far as to say that Reilly's novels have not only been a breath of fresh air for the action-adventure/international thriller genre, but are well worth examination by students of prose style who would ordinarily turn their noses up at popular fiction precisely because of the lengths to which Reilly goes in fitting the form to the content.

1. The bibliographic data preceding the body of the article apart, I'm using the original dates of publication, which tend to be a year earlier than the date of North American publication.

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