Matthew Reilly Hits the Exclamation Mark. Bam!

by Sonia Mitchell

Reading his books is bad for you, and your friends will judge you. Nevertheless, Sonia adores Matthew Reilly.
~
Matthew Reilly is a writer who - according to his interviews - was frustrated with the pace of the thrillers he was reading and wanted them to go faster. Who writes with the attitude that a page without peril or violence is a page wasted. Who I'm sure must lament the fact that there is no punctuation mark more hysterical than the exclamation mark. If a hyper-exclamation mark is ever invented, I know who'll be behind it.

And yet, I love his work. And not in an ironic eyebrow-raised sense, but in the sense that his books grip me, and that I go through phases of reading several of them in a row. He's a difficult writer to recommend because his work has a lot of problems, but his books are so much fun that I can't help but wish him well. He writes thrillers with a military flavour, and many have an Indiana Jones/Dan Brown taste that Reilly cheerfully and shamelessly acknowledges in the text.

It's somewhat hard to know where to start when reviewing him, however...

The rapa's body began to convulse. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! The body went still.

The above is a quote from Temple. Have another, formatting intact, from Seven Ancient Wonders:
Quick as a flash, he unslung his sniper rifle, aimed and fired it at the first oncoming RPG!

Reilly is good at pace, and competent at characterisation (for a thriller writer. I apologise if that sounds snide, but the genre doesn't demand the same level of character as, say, fantasy). What he is not very good at is writing at the level of individual words. He started off self-publishing, and jumped from there to major author status quite quickly. He hasn't, therefore, had years of working at a modest level practising his skills, and I suspect his status as a big name writer means his editor has a lighter pen than one might expect for a young writer.

However I think Reilly has definitely improved - his earlier books aren't that easy to read and enjoy, while in comparison his later ones have been of a much higher quality. He's going less crazy with the italics these days, and even starting to cut down on the exclamation marks. His main problem seems to be writing in a such a rush that the words themselves don't actually matter, just the events he portrays. If he can learn to slow down and go through the finished piece one more time with the red pen I think he'll be all right.

Really, it can only improve from the following scene. Other reviewers have criticised the somewhat implausible premise of a 360-degree bus roll, but the 76 word sentence clearly has other problems. 'Coming upright' and 'plonking' are particular highlights, I think you'll agree.
So the big bus continued to roll, bouncing off its now-crushed roof and coming upright once again, commencing on a second roll - only to bang hard aginst the far wall of the sunken roadway, which had the incredible effect of righting the bus and plonking it back on its own wheels, so that now it was travelling once again on the riverside drive and heading into the tunnel having just performed a full 360-degree roll!

I really do think that Reilly got so engrossed in this scene that he forgot about the writing in his hurry to get the bus back on its wheels.

Breaker One-Nine, this here's the Duck

If you are doing anything military-related in a Reilly novel you need a CB handle callsign. If you are from a county other than the US or Australia it will probably be related to your nationality, because apparently even your own countrymen will define you as an exotic. So a Spaniard is Matador, a Jamaican is Witch-Doctor (ouch) and an Irishwoman is Bloody Mary (everything Celtic is the same).

This is somewhat symptomatic of Reilly's treatment of nationality. He isn't in the Frederick Forsythe league, but his work simplifies to the point of stupidity. This is a particular problem in the Jack West Jr novels, which have as their central conceit a band of soldiers from various politically minor nations working together to Save The WorldTM. With only one or two representatives from each nation, this is the sort of territory where angels fear to tread. And, er, Reilly rushes in. And he has quite a few characters from the Middle East. Also some strange ideas about Japan. More laughably, in the Shane Schofield novels for some reason it's the French who are absolute bastards. In the majority of his novels, those few goodies from 'bad' nationalities are clearly shown to be aberrations who are usually cast out.

Really's problem is a combination of ignorance and laziness, and how forgivable you find it will obviously vary amongst readers. In a genre that's chronic for racism, sexism and trying not to look gay, Reilly does at least seem to have good intentions. Whether or not they pave the road to hell is debatable. He's getting better at writing women, but still gets a Must Try Much Harder on race and religion. He certainly needs to hold off writing about African tribes for a few years.

I'm Not Dead

Reilly main characters are only dead if you see their definitely dead bodies. Seeing them in the process of dying is not enough. Having them described in the narrative as dead is not enough. If a character falls off a cliff or gets crushed, that is not enough. If the place they were in explodes, that is not enough.

Seeing their decapitated heads fall off is enough. Probably.

Reilly's writing is old-fashioned in the sense that he loves cliff-hangers, and clearly he would have one at the end of every chapter if he could get away with it. He once said in an interview 'In a Matthew Reilly novel no character is safe', but that's not really true. In the many books I've read, he's provided one truly surprising death of an important character (you could argue for a few more in Seven Ancient Wonders but in such a big cast a few are clearly spares) and countless fake deaths that turn out to be miraculous escapes. Most important characters are safe, particularly if they're likeable and interesting.

It does irritate me, however, when Reilly categorically states characters are dead when they're not. Even when filtered through the perspective of other characters, unless he's quoting their thoughts it really does seem like cheating.

From Six Sacred Stones:
Wolf gazed down at the stone slab that had just crushed his son to death.

and from another perspective
not forty feet from the pit where his good friend, Jack West Jr, had met a violent death at the hands of his own father.

Okay, we all know Jack's not dead but Reilly's third person perspectives aren't particularly tight, so the distinction between a character's opinions and the narrative voice isn't always as clear as it could be. Quite often Reilly steps into omnipresent narration when imparting chunks of exposition, so I think he needs to be careful. However the I'm Not Dead shenanigans do engender what I think is the quintessential Reilly line:

'Newly risen from the dead, from beneath a great stone slab at the base of a great stone pit, it was Jack West Jr and he was pissed as hell.'

This tells you everything you need to know about why I love his books, and why I really shouldn't.

WTF?

Also, Jack West Jr has a high-tech metal arm that works like a real one except it's much stronger. He had it made for him after he had to plunge his own arm through falling lava in order to manually operate a switch on the other side as the lava destroyed his flesh.

A lot of the time, it's best not to ask too many questions.

Happy Trash

Reilly writes trash, and at times he writes it quite badly. I've outlined his main problems in this article because they really do need considering, and they hold me back from recommending him as a writer.

And yet, I really do enjoy his books. Because here is someone who clearly loves to write. Who has found a job that lets him share his fantasies of blowing things up, of saving the world and being a hero. For all his lack of thinking about important things like religious tensions, Reilly does care about his characters and plots and it's hard not to get swept away with his cheerful excitement at the next thrilling escapade he's throwing at his characters.

The thriller genre is filled with people who take more pleasure in writing about the specifications of helicopters and guns than their actual use. Reilly doesn't bludgeon the reader with research - instead he asks questions like 'wouldn't it be cool if some guy jumped out of a helicopter firing guns straight into a seaplane so it all explodes but the guy escapes on a jet ski?!'

I don't think he's written that scene yet, but I'm sure he will at some point.
Themes: Books
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 11:54 on 2011-03-01
This guy sounds incredible. So, which of his books would you particularly recommend/warn against?
http://winterfox.livejournal.com/ at 12:42 on 2011-03-01
Eesh. 'Fraid the racism is enough to give this a pass; that's one of the things I can never forgive since it turns a book from "trashy lulz" to "fuck off you stupid fuckwit author and die in a fire."
Sonia Mitchell at 13:35 on 2011-03-01
@Arthur: Don't do it, man. But Seven Ancient Wonders is where I started, and that's the one with the bus roll. It's also the first a series of three (so far) in which you can see a marked improvement in the writing. But you mustn't judge me if you do read - I warned you.

@Whitefox: Yes, that's fair enough. I'd equate it to a roughly Indiana Jones level of race fail (with less self-awareness), and for me personally it raises my eyebrows but doesn't stop me reading the books. I think he will get better.
Thrillers nearly always tend to be a guilty pleasure, at least for me - I can't think of many that don't flirt with some form of offensiveness.
Dan H at 21:48 on 2011-03-01
Reilly is good at pace, and competent at characterisation (for a thriller writer. I apologise if that sounds snide, but the genre doesn't demand the same level of character as, say, fantasy).


So his characterization is good by the standards of a genre that has *worse* standards than fantasy?

That's some pretty darn faint praise.
Sonia Mitchell at 23:03 on 2011-03-01
Well, you can mock the doldrums of given genre. But I think decent fantasy does tend to have a stronger focus on character than a similar calibre of crime or thriller writing.

In particular I'd argue that fantasy is better at maintaining a *cast* of characters (say, Chronicles of Amber, A Song of Ice and Fire, Discworld) whereas thrillers/crime tend to focus on one character against a backdrop of NPCs. I actually think fantasy stands its ground pretty well against most other genres, in terms of character.

So I'm not sure my praise is as faint as you're reading it, although I don't claim that we'll be writing fanfiction for Reilly characters any time soon.
Dan H at 23:37 on 2011-03-01
Sorry I just genuinely wasn't sure if you were making a deliberate joke, it's just that I'm generally not used to fantasy being people's go-to genre for examples of strong characterization (fantasy, after all, often relies on stock archetypes and for good reason).
Sonia Mitchell at 00:29 on 2011-03-02
It was perhaps a slightly mischievous example :-)

But most genres have stock characters, and fantasy typically has a more complex selection than thrillers, coupled with a greater interest in backstory.

Also I couldn't help Googling, and it turns out that there *is* a Reilly category on fanfiction.net!
Dan H at 20:52 on 2011-03-02
There's some really scary things on fanfiction.net.

Although I still find Cassie Claire fanfic the funniest. It's fanfic of a fanficcer's published fanfic!
Arthur B at 22:30 on 2011-03-02
Yo dawg, I heard you like fanfic, so I wrote some Cassie Clare-inspired pieces for the sake of being extremely redundant.
Dan H at 22:44 on 2011-03-02
I heard you liked slash, so I put some fic in your fic so you can slash while you slash?
Although I still find Cassie Claire fanfic the funniest. It's fanfic of a fanficcer's published fanfic!

... which was mostly taken from other people's fanfic.

The mind boggles.
Rami at 20:47 on 2011-03-03
I thought this sounded familiar, and I went back and had a look at some titles... it turns out I have actually read Reilly! I read Area 7 during a particularly boring holiday, and I have to agree with Sonia -- it's surprisingly readable.
Sonia Mitchell at 22:51 on 2011-03-04
For the uninitiated, Area 7 involves a bomb being remotely linked to the heart of the US President by some baddies.

Bam!
Dan H at 23:30 on 2011-03-04
When you explain it like that, it sounds like the President's heart was controlling the bomb, which seems particularly devious.

"This bus full of schoolchildren WILL EXPLODE if the Predident's heart rate goes below 75 beats per minute!"

It's like Presidential Cardiac Speed.
Andy G at 00:00 on 2011-03-05
@ Dan: I believe there was an episode of Bugs where a bomb was strapped to a cardiac monitor. The evil villain's victim had to keep running on a treadmill to prevent their heart rate going below a certain level.
Wardog at 15:45 on 2011-03-06
Hmm..these sound almost tempting but I think racism coupled with REALLY TERRIBLE writing might flip my fun gauge to no thanks.

On the other hand, I squee-ed to see a review from you, Sonia. It's been a while :)
Sonia Mitchell at 23:03 on 2011-03-07
Why, thank you Kyra, it's been a while since I made anyone squee :-) I've been accumulating opinions, so I'll try and stick around this time.

When you explain it like that, it sounds like the President's heart was controlling the bomb


And there's a very good reason for that...
Arthur B at 19:45 on 2011-06-29
So I just finished Seven Ancient Wonders.

Loooool. You didn't mention how insanely fond the man is of throwing in maps and diagrams whenever he has the slightest excuse.

Though yeah, things get cringeworthy whenever he discusses race. Or religion. Or, really, anything resembling a fact. The dude really needs to just avoid the actual world we live in as much as he can and just write about mad shit happening in entirely invented settings.

What I'm saying is: Black Library, give Matt Reilly a call and give him a chunk of the Warhammer 40,000 galaxy to ruin.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:18 on 2011-06-30
Oh dear. You really did read it.

'You didn't mention how insanely fond the man is of throwing in maps and diagrams whenever he has the slightest excuse.'


Hmm, so I didn't. I had planned to mention them in order to make an MS Paint dig, but obviously forgot. I guess the very fact that they're sometimes necessary says things about the writing - either he doesn't have the descriptive ability, or he sacrificed clarity for speed.

But sending him to Warhammer 40000 seems like a good solution actually. I've never read any of the books, but he'd totally tempt me to start.
Arthur B at 11:03 on 2011-06-30
Oh dear. You really did read it.

It gets worse but whoops lol can't talk about that yet.

Hmm, so I didn't. I had planned to mention them in order to make an MS Paint dig, but obviously forgot. I guess the very fact that they're sometimes necessary says things about the writing - either he doesn't have the descriptive ability, or he sacrificed clarity for speed.

I kind of appreciate the diagrams, actually. It's like he's saying "Look, you're not here for a detailed description of how all this stuff is arranged, you just want to hear about the headshots", and to be fair to the guy, that's precisely why I was there.

Also what is it with him and headshots? Pretty much all the perma-kills are headshots in this book.
Dan H at 12:30 on 2011-06-30
You get an achie for headshots.
Arthur B at 12:44 on 2011-06-30
You get an achie for headshots.

I absolutely do not, and it's completely inappropriate of you to even raise such a su-

Oh, wait, you mean an achievement?

I thought it was slang for something else.
Sonia Mitchell at 15:04 on 2011-06-30
It gets worse? You haven't made other people read it, have you?

'
I kind of appreciate the diagrams, actually. It's like he's saying "Look, you're not here for a detailed description of how all this stuff is arranged, you just want to hear about the headshots", and to be fair to the guy, that's precisely why I was there.
'

Fair point. But for me it does break the immersion to have to go back to the diagram and work out what just happened. Which then becomes a point at which the pace is compromised.
But I admittedly tend to skip diagrams when they appear before a scene, because they're meaningless to me at that point.
Arthur B at 15:27 on 2011-06-30
What gets me is the way he'll repeatedly reprint the same diagram in a chapter as though he doesn't have any faith in your ability to find it again.

And the way he will incorporate blatant spoilers into them.
For example, any hope of creating tension in the scene where the ziggurat collapses on West and Pooh Bear is ruined by the fact that the secret passage out of the ziggurat they use to escape is marked on the diagram.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:48 on 2011-07-01
Heh, I just went back to check that. Another reason to keep skipping them. There's also a particularly pointless one near the end, showing a pyramid with some scaffolding on the top. Even Reilly can describe that.

I just finished reading a pirate novel that began with a detailed map of an island, loving annotated with spoilers detailing what happened at each point. This made it completely unusable unless I now want to go back and relive the story. I think sometimes people forget to consider what their maps are actually for in their mission to be clear about what happens.
Arthur B at 01:44 on 2014-05-31
So, this afternoon I read Reilly's episodic Troll Mountain novella, and it's a little slim to be worth a full-blown review so I'll stick my thoughts here:

- Despite the title it's not quite full-blooded fantasy so much as it's speculative history - there's no actual magic, the plague is
scurvy
and the magic elixir our hero has to steal from the trolls is
delicious orange juice
, and the trolls and hobgoblins represent dead ends on the proto-human family tree. (In particular, they are described as being largely - with some exceptions - incapable of certain kinds of abstract thought).

- In fact, there's something vaguely Howardian about the setting, in a good way - despite my many beefs with Robert E. Howard, I do quite like the idea of a prehistoric setting where entire empires and peoples from before recorded history rise and fall, I just don't like the way Howard uses the setting as a testbed for his cranky racial theories. Reilly doesn't do that here - in fact he has the wise old mentor character specifically go out of his way to tell our hero that any broad overview of a culture invariably involves generalisations which may or may not hold true for individual members of that culture, which is a heavy-handed way of saying "I'm not saying these guys are inherently genetically evil, it's just that culturally they're in a bad place right now" but there you go.

- Incidentally, that wise old mentor? An honest to goodness ninja. Props to Reilly for not letting his quasi-ancient Scandinavian setting put him off throwing a character from a radically different culture into the mix. I particularly like the way that the character's wisdom isn't pitched as some inherently magical feature of his culture so much as it's the result of the guy living as a hermit in the Badlands for years and picking up a heap of local knowledge.

- I'm a little surprised the main character knows what a crocodile is, even if we do imagine a wider range for crockers pre-Ice Age.

- Even in prehistory, Reilly manages to work a suitable number of huge explosions into the climax, and I'm 100% fine with that.

- Reilly is so sweet when he talks in the DVD extras section about how the novella is trying to make a point about the distinction between societies running on a right-is-might basis and those in which every individual's talents and aptitudes are respected. (He also seems to be a little simplistic when he applies that idea to modern politics.)

- What he delivers here is a very, very typical adventure fiction coming of age story, complete with a protagonist who wins out thanks to their brains as opposed to their brawn and an inventiveness and willingness to try new things that is exceptional for their culture. So geek supremacism is still ultimately in effect here.

- Our hero gets a troll sidekick called "Dum".

- Very readable, Reilly does a great job hooking you with his hyperactive enthusiasm for his own story.

- Ultimately not challenging or exceptional as far as this sort of story goes, but it's fun and you can read it in about an hour or two so there's that.

Also, I have to highlight this quote from the customary interview about the book that's at the end:

I can understand why some of my readers would be feeling confused lately! After all, I have bounced from the high-octane energy and considerable violence of Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves to the very adult themes in The Tournament to the fantasy-fable of Troll Mountain. Hey, wait for later this year, when my new novel set in China comes out: it's a full-tilt pedal-to-the-metal thriller that takes action to a whole new level of scale.

Reilly has never sounded more like Garth Marenghi and I love him for it.
James D at 02:37 on 2014-05-31
Matthew Reilly is one of the few people who've written more exclamation marks than they've read.
Arthur B at 20:57 on 2014-08-07
Just read Temple and it really drives home his amazingly inconsistent approach to research. For instance, he'll look up the names of all the guns and aircraft he utilises and he'll read up on the genocide of the Incas, but at the same time he has absolutely no qualms about making shit up that on the one hand requires a certain baseline level of understanding of the subject matter he's dealing with to think up in the first place, but at the same time utterly flies in the face of reality.

For instance, the super-isotope that the Incan idol is made out of and can be used to make a superweapon that can blow up the Earth is exponentially more powerful than Uranium or Plutonium and about twice as heavy as either because it was formed in a binary star system, and everything in binary star systems is doubled apparently.
Angmar Bucket at 03:16 on 2014-08-09
I know this is my first post with my shiny new user name but all I can say to the above comment's explanation of this research style and the fruit thereof is this: ?!
Sonia Mitchell at 22:15 on 2014-08-13
Re Temple, it's been while since I read it but that main issue I remember was what the hell the rapas (big cats) were eating. There is no way
human sacrifice
alone could account for a whole pack of them.
Angmar Bucket at 01:50 on 2014-08-14
Is it possible he's a 12-year-old boy? Has anyone ever seen this "Matthew Reilly"? And if they have seen him and confirm he's a grown man, has anyone considered the possibility he's a stand-in for some young boy somewhere with deep pockets?! And then his bodyguards show up and use their guns to shoot whoever finds out?!
Sonia Mitchell at 21:49 on 2014-08-14
Hmm, could be something in that. Maybe there's some kind of Axe Cop arrangement.
Arthur B at 21:42 on 2015-03-07
So I read The Great Zoo of China, Reilly's latest, and since this has become the place we go to discuss our secret shame let's have at it:

- It really is "Jurassic Park, only in China and with dragons", right down to the interview section at the end featuring Reilly talking about how he really wanted to distinguish it from Jurassic Park and the major distinctions he comes up with is a) the big disaster happens during an advance tour for the media, rather than an attempt to recruit extra technical expertise, and b) the zoo is meant to be Communist China's attempt to make a cultural touchstone comparable to Disneyworld, rather than just a capitalist money-making exercise.

- Reilly's research on China seems to constitute reading a lot of Wikipedia articles and Googling a whole bunch - he's full of facts here and there but the overall impression he creates resembles a parody of Chinese culture knocked together by someone who is very credulous about stereotypes presented via American media.

- Reilly goes for a strong female protagonist this time and actually doesn't utterly embarrass himself. CJ Cameron gets to kick ass in a whole bunch of crazy stunt scenes, her most striking physical feature is in fact the scarring she received from a horrible crocodile attack (which is used to establish a backstory of badassery), and she even gets to bag a reasonably cool male love interest at that. Also she befriends dragons and gets to ride them without things degenerating into cutesy Pern knockoff-ery.

- Reilly's dragons are actually kind of hardcore, right down to ripping out their own auditory canals in order to make themselves immune to the zoo's sonic behaviour control systems. I mean, I'm not sure that's even possible, but it's pretty badass.

- Wikipedia has it down as YA fiction despite it not actually having any protagonists or themes I'd really describe as YA. I suspect this is a really dry crack at Reilly's writing level.

- In the self-interview section in Troll Mountain he promised that this would be "a full-tilt pedal-to-the-metal thriller that takes action to a whole new level of scale", so points for delivering what you promise, Reilly. I particularly liked how sudden the big reversal from "the tour is absolutely fine" to "the tour is absolutely fucked" is when it happens.

- In the self-interview section here he mentions he's planning to move to the US in order to better pursue his dreams of turning his stories into movies. Matthew Reilly's Darkplace may be inching closer to be a reality.
Sonia Mitchell at 23:37 on 2015-03-08
I forgot this was out! Definitely at the top of my must-buy list.

>It really is "Jurassic Park, only in China and with dragons", right down to the interview section at the end featuring Reilly talking about how he really wanted to distinguish it from Jurassic Park and the major distinctions he comes up with is a) the big disaster happens during an advance tour for the media, rather than an attempt to recruit extra technical expertise


That sounds really similar to his 'I could only think of five types of alien' logic from Contest.

>Reilly's dragons are actually kind of hardcore, right down to ripping out their own auditory canals in order to make themselves immune to the zoo's sonic behaviour control systems. I mean, I'm not sure that's even possible, but it's pretty badass.


That sounds awesome.
Arthur B at 07:16 on 2015-03-09
The novel also includes characters directly referencing Jurassic Park during the tour section and pondering whether the zoo architects have seen the movie. (They have.)
Sonia Mitchell at 13:11 on 2015-03-09
He did the same in Seven Ancient Wonders, with characters mentioning The Da Vinci Code as they skulked around The Louvre looking for artifacts.

I may have just bought this book.
Arthur B at 13:42 on 2015-03-09
Which reminds me, I've had Six Sacred Stones and Five Greatest Warriors on my to-read pile for ages and I really should get around to them soon.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:21 on 2015-04-21
Much as I hate to admit it, The Great Zoo of China was less fun than I'd been expecting.

The dragons were badass, but I think it just went on a bit long and the escalation of danger didn't properly work for me. I did, however, like the gradual revelation of the degree the dragons could actually think and plan.

I'm annoyed that they had four legs plus wings.

And Reilly seems to be developing a distressing new bad habit - two [human] characters were so badly injured that internal organs were expelled through their mouths. Which is so stupid that it almost came full circle and made me question whether I was wrong for thinking it was stupid.
Arthur B at 20:54 on 2017-02-28
Tackled Six Sacred Stones and gave up about halfway through. I almost hesitate to say it, but it kind of took Reilly's wild overescalation a bit too far; there's just too much stuff going on, and each thing going on is just a little too similar to all the other things going on, and it's just a big confused mess.

He also goes all out with the diagrams and has a really messy chapter structure, to the point where it almost feels like a pile of first draft notes rather than a finished product.
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