Monday 23 January 2012

Scarecrow And The Army Of Thieves by Mathew Reilly

Vast lumps of state-of-the-art equipment collide with each other. Massive explosions and incessant gunfire rip through an isolated island north of the former USSR. Amphibious vehicles, robots, megatrains, all sorts of aircraft and even one robot battle it out as the fate of nearly half the world hangs in the balance.

Oh, and there are people operating most of this machinery. Did I mention that? Welcome to the world of Jack Schofield, a US military operative with near-superhuman powers. Together with a small and ill-assorted group, including a sexy French assassin who is assigned to kill him and an Italian-American soldier whose surname is Puzo and who turns out to have Mafia ties – you can’t make this stuff up, or rather, if your name is Mathew Reilly, you can – Schofield, nicknamed Scarecrow, has to battle against long odds and to the sound of a ticking clock. In the process, he is shot at, tortured and even killed for a while. Yes, you read that correctly.

The premise is pure pulp fiction: a mysterious organization called the Army Of Thieves kidnaps dangerous criminals with military training from high-security prisons and steals a formidable array of military equipment from around the world. They then take control of an obscure Russian island where they intend to detonate a secret weapon that has the potential to destroy the whole world. The timeline is so short that the rest of the world has no time to send specialized troops in to save the day; instead they have to depend on whatever personnel happen to already be deployed in the area on other missions. Luckily for the world (or at least half of it), one of these people happens to be Schofield.

This is strictly escapist fare: while there is some attempt made to resolve long-standing character storylines from previous novels in this series, there’s more time spent naming and describing various items of military hardware than on what few instances of character insight that find their way into this breakneck narrative. Escapism has its place in the world, and the author makes no bones about the fact that he writes to entertain. The blockbuster sales of his many novels make it clear that a vast public is equally willing to read his books to be entertained, and they won’t be disappointed by this latest piece of adrenalized chest-thumping.

It seems unfair to criticize a book for adhering to the tenets of its genre so faithfully – a bit like breaking a butterfly on a wheel. And the thriller novel, like any other form has its own rules and tropes. Reilly applies these parameters skillfully to create a white-knuckle headlong narrative with sufficient reversals, revelations and colourful characters to keep up the pace. He’s working on the more brutal, grueling end of the thriller spectrum here, and that’s fair enough too. However, the choppy, functional prose can feel a bit bland and plodding just when one wishes for vivid description or atmosphere. Reilly’s habit of breaking chunks of text up with short standalone sentences is a trick that is used a few times too many and his use of italics and exclamation marks at particularly intense moments feels puerile at times, like reading a severely over-armoured version of a children’s reading primer.

So this is essentially a novel that works on about the same level of sophistication as the average G.I. Joe animated cartoon episode, only with added brutality and adult situations, or at least implications. Is that a bad thing? Reilly emphatically states that it is not in an afterword and if you’re one of the millions of readers who are going to buy his novel and spend a pleasant few days with it at the beach or while commuting, you’ll probably find yourself agreeing with him.

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Deccan Herald yesterday:

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