Friday, 13 September 2013

Welcome Back Scarecrow: Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves by Matthew Reilly Review

Marine captain Shane Schofield, call-sign Scarecrow, is called back into action when a terrorist organisation known as the Army of Thieves takes over Dragon Island, a long forgotten Cold War weapons base in the Arctic, with the intent of using one of the weapons there to wipe out the entire Northern Hemisphere.

The literary equivalent of Hollywood blockbuster action movies, Matthew Reilly’s adventure thrillers may be hated by the Australian literary establishment for being far too commercial, but they are certainly loved by just about everyone else. One of Australia’s best-selling writers, Reilly does not write books with deep themes or messages or anything likely to ever be set for study in Year 12 English. What he does write, however, are huge scale, hyper-kinetic, over-the-top adventure stories that may not get you to think too hard, but will keep you turning the pages from beginning to end.

Although he has written some stand-alone novels (including my personal favourite, Contest, featuring an intergalactic death match in the New York State Library), the majority of his books are either about Jack West Jr., Reilly’s answer to Indiana Jones, or super-marine Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield, who has a habit of being in the wrong place at the right time. Recently, Reilly has been focussing primarily on the Jack West adventures, but after a gap of eight years, Reilly has finally decided to make a welcome return to the Scarecrow universe with Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves (aka Scarecrow Returns).

After all the horrible stuff Scarecrow has been through in the previous three novels and one novella (Hell Island, written as part of an Australian government-sponsored initiative), the USMC are convinced that Scarecrow is well and truly broken and have sent him to the Arctic with a group of scientists to test new equipment in extreme climates, in order to keep him busy and out of the way. However, as luck would have it, this places Scarecrow and his team in the closest proximity to the Dragon Island weapons base when the Army of Thieves decide to strike. The weapon the Army of Thieves are threatening to use is an atmospheric gas weapon, literally designed to set the sky on fire, and Scarecrow’s team of four marines, three civilians and a very cute robot called Bertie (think Wall-E with guns) have just 4 ½ hours to get in and stop them.

Not as grand in scale as Reilly’s previous effort (the two-part story made up of The Six Sacred Stones and The Five Greatest Warriors, which saw Jack West Jr. racing around the world to avert the apocalypse), Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves is still up to the same high standard as the previous Scarecrow books and has the added bonus of a great new character, the scenery-chewing, larger than life French soldier Baba, who is effectively the male equivalent of Scarecrow’s loyal second in command, Mother. The Arctic setting does feel reminiscent of the Antarctic setting of Reilly’s earlier Ice Station (I guess there’s a limit to the number of places Reilly’s novels can be set) and there is one very unpleasant, 1984-inspired torture scene that I could have done without, but on the whole, this is still a better book than the majority of novels I read each year  - and the majority of movies I watch, too, for that matter.

Purportedly aimed at adults (I’m still not convinced), Matthew Reilly’s novels read like the sorts of movies that have teenagers cheering in the cinemas and are among those rare few books that genuinely appeal to readers of all ages. If you’re new to Reilly’s works, Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves is not a bad place to start (although you may prefer to start with Ice Station, the novel in which Scarecrow first appeared) and if you’re a returning reader, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

Verdict: Another hit from best-selling author Matthew Reilly, a writer who makes me proud to be an Australian.

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