Friday, January 13, 2012

New Review: Scarecrow Returns, by Matthew Reilly

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012, pp. 368.

Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow Returns (published last year in his native Australia as Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves) opens with a burst of action as a mysterious "Army of Thieves" captures a Russian island in the Arctic Sea – one which happens to be home to a secret Cold War-era research installation, and the site of a Soviet superweapon now in play. This event marks the beginning of a global crisis as seen by the American and Russian crisis response teams. As luck would have it, Marine Recon Captain Shane Scofield, and his longtime friend and comrade-in-arms "Mother," are with an equipment-testing team nearby – and virtually all that the American government can call on to save the day.

This book is Reilly's first Shane Scofield novel since Scarecrow (2003), almost eight years earlier, and naturally I was looking forward to it. Nonetheless, some aspects of the premise initially worried me.1 For one thing, it suggested that the globe-trotting and mystery-solving I had enjoyed in Scarecrow and the Jack West trilogy had been abandoned in a return to the more static adventures with which Reilly began his career, like Ice Station (1998) and Area 7 (2001). I'd enjoyed those books, but felt he'd since superseded them (Reilly himself has referred to them as the work of Reilly 1.0), and wasn't sure how much more juice he could extract from the older concept he'd already executed several times. Additionally, two decades after the Cold War's end the idea of a Soviet superweapon would seem to have passed its "sell-by" date – much as has long become the case with villains left over from the Third Reich. I also wasn't sure what to make of the "Army of Thieves" who comprised the villains, these seeming to be an especially senseless bunch in comparison with Reilly's previous bad guys, whose agendas, however horrific, at least had a recognizable rationale.

Fortunately, the book exceeded my expectations in all these areas. Like the books of "Reilly 1.0," Scarecrow Returns is a three-way collision between teams of special-forces soldiers at a high-tech facility in a remote, hostile landscape, but Reilly manages to keep the material fresh, and the plot and action unfold with a smoothness that reflects his now lengthy experience in telling this kind of tale. The battles are as readable as any Reilly has written (at least, when read with the aid of the numerous illustrations), while being as grand in scale and over-the-top as readers have come to expect – which is to say, unequaled by any writer working similar territory today. Reilly's particular variant on the trope of the "left-over Soviet superweapon now on the loose" is a good one, and his villain is in line with his predecessors, at least, when we get behind the mask. The novel also benefits from a number of new touches, ranging from a scene-stealing combat robot named Bertie, to a French vendetta against our hero – and a few memorable plot twists (which I won't spoil here). Additionally, cartoonish as Reilly's characters are, they are nonetheless a bit fuller and more nuanced here, and their personalities do have a bearing on the tale.

That is not to say that everything is perfect. Readers demanding meticulous treatment of the technical detail will be irritated by such things as Reilly's depiction of a KH-12 satellite as a signals intelligence platform (its function is in fact optical imaging), and his repeated reference to an SS-23 as an intermediate range ballistic missile (when its 500 kilometer range actually makes it a short-range ballistic missile) – details that could have easily been corrected without requiring the slightest changes to the story. There is an incident in one of the battles (in the "Stadium") where the editing appeared to falter. (It seemed to me that Reilly wrote "trench" when he should have written "walkway" – though I'm less than a hundred percent certain of this, as those of you familiar with his action sequences can understand.) Such nit-picks aside, Reilly's use of his over-the-top plot to explore very real geopolitical issues struck me as less clever this time around, the rationale behind the action comparatively muddled, especially when compared with the almost psychic perceptiveness of the villain. (The fact that the weapon's activation frankly seems unlikely to leave any "winners" on the planet is only one of the reasons for this.)

Still, on the whole it's a satisfying read if you're up for this kind of adventure, and fans of previous books are likely to find it well worth their time. However, given the extent to which events in the previous novels bear on the story in Scarecrow Returns, readers new to the series might want to check out the previous installments (Ice Station, Area 7, and Scarecrow) first.

1. I use the original publication dates here, rather than the dates of their release in North America, my edition excepted.

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

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