Friday, January 6, 2012

Review: 'Scarecrow Returns' by Matthew Reilly

Let me start off by repeating what a big fan I am of Matthew Reilly's books. I enjoy them the same way I'd enjoy a big action-adventure movie. But, his latest, 'Scarecrow Returns,' is a step backwards.

The book starts off well-enough with a bit of back story and character development for which Reilly isn't necessarily known. It introduces the new team at the same time letting us in on Scarecrow's psyche. Unfortunately, Scarecrow himself is still a rather one-dimensional character. Given the events of the previous, full-length book (don't want to ignore Hell Island), there is ample opportunity for introspection. But, Reilly doesn't really spend the time on it. In his defense, most of his books are 100 mph, explosion-filled testosterone fests. But, you'd like to see some growth and depth at this point for these characters you've become accustomed to reading about.

The plot, a doomsday weapon-fueled race against time, is intriguing and put to good effect. The explanation for the weapon's existence and science behind its function are sound and believable. The primary villain is... villainous. His background is well-established, though there is a significant gap in his history that isn't really explained. And, it's an important gap.

Note: Mild Spoilers Below

The Good
  • The inclusion of the BRTE robot 'Bertie.' I had read some posts about the character and was ready to hate it. Instead... awesome addition and one that I came to care about more than a few of the under-developed human characters.
  • The action. Reilly leaves little confusion as to what's going on in the scene. And, it's an impressive mental image with which to frame everything.
  • The French chick. I was happy to see Reilly blow up yet another French Sub. Destroying French stuff is fun. But, I could picture this girl as I read the story, and I enjoyed the character.
  • Baba. He's an interesting, fun character, and I was happy to see him used liberally.
  • Fairfax. Having David back in the mix was a good choice.
  • Connections to previous books. The connection to Ice Station's Luc Champion character was nice. Also, having the bounty on Scarecrow's head because of the 'French incident' and having that be the reason he is stationed up in the Arctic... nicely done.
  • Consistency. If you liked his previous books and the characters he built, Reilly won't let you down with this one.
  • The last page. A nice way to end it that offers more than the usual 'tidy bow' wrapped around the crisis.

The Bad

  • Character development. Scarecrow, as the main protagonist, could use more levels to him, but the real failings are in the other team members, notably Billy 'the Kid,' Emma, and Mario.
  • The book reads like Area 7 (the 2nd Scarecrow book) but set in Ice Station (the 1st Scarecrow book). The pacing is almost identical and there is little to make us think that there are differences between the two. Heck, Reilly even included deranged polar bears as a frequent, 'gotcha' enemy roaming the island. [see: Ice Station's walruses or Area 7's... well.. entire section of deranged test animals]. It's not bad... just the same.
  • Crazy set-ups. Look, I get that Reilly is going for 'over the top,' but sometimes a scene plays out in a completely illogical manner solely in order to get the story to the next action set piece. It's difficult to get in the mind of central characters when nothing they do makes sense or is how a normal person would react in similar circumstances. The attraction of the Scarecrow character is his impulsiveness and brazen action. Unfortunately (and I don't remember this from previous installments), the justification for most of his choices here seems to be an 'ah screw it' approach. Kind of a 'why not?' reasoning. It's used multiple times, most with Scarecrow actually saying 'F#$& it.' It seemed simplistic, and I expected more.
  • (Spoiler!!!!!!) America is the bad guy. In Reilly's other series starring Jack West (an Australian), there are American forces going up against the hero. In the final book, Reilly (an Australian himself) eventually inserted a minor American character to help the Australian. But, I didn't mind the fact that Americans were on the other side of the battle. However, in the Scarecrow series (and I didn't consider this until reading this book), every story has Americans as the bad guys in some fashion... and Scarecrow is a US Marine! It's either a secret intelligence agency that's infiltrated all aspects of the armed forces, or it's a rogue general, or it's a Cold War CIA operative... Scarecrow may be American, but he spends most of his time fighting Americans.
  • (Spoiler!!!!!!) Mother is invincible. Now, I like the character of Mother Newman, and I'm happy she stays around. But, just like Ice Station, she miraculously survives after being left for dead. Raise your hand if you read the book and ACTUALLY thought Mother was dead... yea... that's right. No one. We all knew she'd show back up at the end. You're getting predictable, Matt.
  • Lots of exclamation points and one sentence paragraphs. It reads like a screenplay... which might be what Reilly is going for.

In the end, 'Returns' is an entertaining read, especially if you liked his previous books since it mirrors much of their pacing. If you didn't like them, you'll hate this. Unfortunately, the previous book, 'Scarecrow,' was extremely well written and globe-spanning. I was disappointed in that this novel seemed to take a step back for Reilly. It's good, but 'Scarecrow' was great. And I was hoping his Return would be better.

3* out of 5

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