File 3: Seven Ancient Wonders


I abandon my laboured song-inspired post titles, at last, because I’m also abandoning Matthew Reilly’s Seven Ancient Wonders. At least for the time being. I will now provide minor justifications for this drastic action, in case all the others weren’t reason enough.

Super-

Adding the word “super” to other words doesn’t make them super. It makes the author sound like a child. Knowing he isn’t one, it makes the author sound like a dick. When that inlet was described as having super-deep walls I wanted to slap Reilly silly. There are other examples. The final straw was his describing the armour-piercing bullets as being “super-lethal” – fuck me. Good thing he didn’t go into advertising. “Don’t settle for more – have extra-more.” This is pathetic writing on a piddling-small scale.

Interestingly, however

Throughout the book (okay, okay, the first half anyway) Reilly punctures his text with sentences starting Interestingly comma, or Curiously comma. However comma. “Fine, comma, whatever” says I. In the third chapter, several characters are sat around a table waiting for that vital meeting and one starts reading a briefing kit entitled “The Golden Capstone”. Guess which words, which phrase structures, feature. Reilly has only one narrative voiceeven a text within his narrative employs the same voice.

He – he just – he can’t – he – he. It’s. I mean.

If you asked Matthew Reilly to write a shopping list, would it read like one of his novels?

That, of course, is a rhetorical question.

The god-damned mother-fucking Italics

I didn’t mention this in the previous post, but the following truly is the reason why I’m calling a halt and moving on. I’ve made the point about Reilly’s spectacular misuse of italics already. However, comma, in The Battle Of Guantanamo Bay chapter the big stupid stealth jumbo jet makes its landing on an unusual improvised airstrip. After describing Gitmo’s wiry horrors, Reilly concludes:

It is a forbidding installation, one of the bleakest places on Earth.

And yet after all that, only 500 metres from the Camp’s outermost razor-wire fence is something you would find only in an American military base: a golf course.

It’s that golf course they land on, naturally. Now, I know what Reilly means. I know he doesn’t mean to suggest that all of Scotland is one massive US military base, even though you can’t turn left there without someone screaming Fore in the distance. He means to say not that golf-courses are only found on military bases, but that they are –

…something you would only find in an American military base…

– thus, by italicising, emphasising an essential difference between US and Non-US combat facilities. So, after littering his writing with misplaced, misinformational italics, when he actually needs to use them… he doesn’t. I would have more sympathy if, due to carpal tunnel syndrome, his little finger kept dropping on the Shift key and half the novel was in block capitals – but italics have to be used by conscious choice. Reilly goes out of his way to call his own consciousness into question.

Yes, I admit it, I’m still just having some fun at the guy’s expense, but there are proper reasons why I feel a longing for something that (comparatively) soars to the levels of quality demonstrated by Dan Brown – even, to a lesser extent, good old Clive Cussler. My feelings about both of them are well documented here, their many dire failures of characterisation, plotting and prose – but at least they demonstrate the barest bones of what it takes to be a writer. Matthew Reilly has set a benchmark for inability that would turn away even the most flexible of literary limbo dancers.

In a way I feel admiration for him. Reilly has achieved what I and many other amateurs can only dream of – he writes for a living, and what he writes is read by many. In a much greater way, though, I feel contempt. He can put words on a page and he can tell a story, but only in the most superficial of ways. This happened and this happened and this happened and this happened. Often with exclamation marks, onomatopoeia and unnecessary swearing! Twat! Shit! Boof! This happened!

A large proportion of this contempt I feel is reserved for Pan Macmillan, or Macmillan, or whatever they want to be called – how can a publisher possibly consider this worthy of release? I presume they open manuscripts before acceptance, and in what I’ve actually read of 7AW there has been only one spelling error for example – but no competent editor can have assessed this and not found it horribly wanting. The comedy exploding of this pamphlet to book proportions is the final cynical cherry on the turd trifle – take my last paragraph and hit carriage return three times before every capital letter to complete the picture. It stinks of fear, either on his part or that of Pan McDonald’s, that some of Reilly’s fans might realise they are paying too much money for too little ink.

That there is a fan base out there to worry over is dismaying in itself. Reilly’s success far outstrips his skill – and don’t mistake all this criticism for genre snobbery either. I’m all for a good thriller, I love science fiction, give me bit of horror any day of the week – but I expect some craft as well as imagination. Reilly barely has even the latter, but when it comes to craftsmanship I wouldn’t trust him to nail his thumb to a door. Unless there were zombies approaching the other side of it.

So, you know what? I can’t be bothered.

Instead I’m going to reminisce, but in my old age the dates and years grow hazy, so bear with me. When I was (let’s say) ten, I started to read a Harry Harrison novel called Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers. I was young and I didn’t see deeply enough into it to recognise it as a work of satire. All I saw was cliché and, for the first time in my life as a reader, I put a book down unfinished. I was glad to do so. It sat on a shelf for a long time, glanced at and passed over with disdain, until, faced with a family holiday and a minimum of six hours in the back of the car, I deliberately picked it up again – specifically so I could say I’d never left a man behind, no matter how incompetent he was.

Of course, it turned out to be great. Affectionate parody of the sf genre, positive mockery of social conventions like race, gender, sexuality, etc. etc. I read it cover to cover by the time we arrived (at a farm in Wales) and finished it with a smile on my face. I know with certainty that Seven Ancient Wonders could be read in that time, probably twice over – but I also know that my only grin at the end of it would be a rictus.

Leave no man behind.

I’m not at all sure I’ll tell the chopper pilot to turn back for Matthew Reilly – but if we do happen to swing round again, maybe I’ll take pity and unload a full clip at him.

As a mercy.

For us all.

Fuck this crap, I’m going to read Angels And Demons.

Never thought I’d say that.

I skimmed over the plot of the last chapter, which is good, because the next was so short that I can make up for the omissions and still not have to trouble anyone with heavy reading this time round.

It ended with a couple of revelations. The first was that someone in the team must be a traitor. This deduction was made due to the impossibility of the American forces finding Hamilcar’s Refuge as hot on their heels as they did. This raises the possibility that Stretch the Israeli, the latecomer to the team  – who’s mutually (and rather dodgily reillised) racist antagonism with Pooh Bear the Arab makes him the far-too-obvious culprit – may be the culprit.

If I felt even the slightest attachment to the narrative I might be interested in reading on to discover whether Reilly is clumsily setting up a double-bluff by having one of the others be doing the dirty instead (my guess would be Air Monster as he’s hardly raised his head so far), or whether he is simply painting this guy (and himself to a certain degree) as pointlessly racist so we won’t mind when West blows him away after all.

How much more I shall be reading will shortly become the subject of more attention.

The second reveal was of the team’s next move. During the escape West manages to take photographs of the vital secret messages hidden on the Capstone Pieces, so the plot can lumber on towards its next set piece. Unfortunately these messages fail to provide any workable clues when translated, so West hatches a plan to recruit the world’s leading Capstone Piece Expert. As someone says, maybe they should have done that sooner.

The big twist, which the following chapter deals with in a mere fourteen pages, is that this expert has been a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay for several years – so the team prepare to bust him out! However, what strikes me as a little odd is that this figure is no victim of injustice – he is called Mullah Mustapha Zaeed and is, apparently, a clinically insane psychotic terrorist qualified teacher of fundamentalist Islam assassin – feel free to clean up that string of words in whatever way you like.

So this means that West and Co. are not just in the business of dooming the globe to a short period of devastating climactic disasters, on the grounds that the alternative – allowing America or Europe to “rule the world” via the power of ancient Egyptian sun magic – would be worse, a proposition which would probably earn them a place in a padded cell if they mentioned it publicly; but that in order to achieve this dubious goal they are willing to liaise with terrorists. Ethical nose-dive there then.

Today’s chapter, “The Battle of Guantanamo Bay”, is pretty straightforward. The jumbo jet flies straight into Cuba, dropping off West (and Zoe, although she only seems to be involved so she can wear a “tight form-fitting bodysuit” that “brought out the best in her slender figure” revealing that she “was beautiful and fit“, so I’ll not mention her again) wearing the same little winged-backpack he used in Tunisia and lands in the base. While the Americans are distracted by it (more to follow) West blows the roof off Zaeed’s cell with Semtex, offers him a get out of jail free card, then flies his swivel-eyed prize back to the jumbo and they all escape without so much as a scratch. Tah-dah.

I have to congratulate Reilly for resisting the temptation to load Gitmo up with Ancient Cuban booby-traps, but the brevity with which “the most heavily fortified military base in the world” is penetrated and fled from rather shows what happens to his imagination when he is forced to abandon his fave subject. I’m only going to detail one thing about the big distraction scheme that allows West to do his ethically questionable thing. Just after he jumps out of the moving plane we are told that the rest of the team are ready in the Halicarnassus’ weapons turrets –

Their six-barrelled miniguns were currently loaded with super-lethal 7.62mm armour-piercing tracer rounds–but they had special instructions from West as to what to use later, when the battle got really hot.

Did I mention that stupid name of the plane before? Well it doesn’t matter, but that’s what it is. A few pages later, when they have landed and 3,000 US troops go pouring out to surround the plane –

…a withering volley of gunfire erupted from the Halicarnassus‘s four revolving gun turrets.

The volley of bullets slammed into the Recon Marines, sent them flying backwards through the air, slamming them into trees and vehicles.

But they weren’t dead.

The bullets were rubber bullets, like those West and his team had used in the quarry in Sudan.

West’s instructions to his team had been simple: you only kill someone who wants to kill you. You never ever kill men who are just doing their job.

This is pretty rich coming from West, as in the previous chapter the villain finds one of his drivers and four guards “shot to bits. Their blood covered the walls of the hold. All had got their guns out–but not a single one of them had got a round off“. All in a day’s work for Jack West Jnr. Slaughterer of men just doing their job.

As for right now, all that flying rubber is the sum total of gunfire that takes place, which seems to suggest that those armour-piercing bullets were only in the guns before they landed to give them something to hurry over after they landed. Or maybe to make it appear that the goodies were going to ruthlessly massacre thousands of wholesome American soldiers in their heroic quest to free a fundamentalist terrorist.

I can’t help thinking that Matthew reilly didn’t think too deeply about all this before he started typing. And it’s for this reason that…

It’s becoming more than a little drag to open the covers of 7AW and read so much as a single page these days. Partly it’s because there are so many genuinely good things to read – I’ve just spent a small fortune on a set of actual classics, bound in Penguin-leather (or something) and designed by Bunbury. Or someone. To be honest I can’t remember his name and, as I don’t dare take them out of their wrappers in case some passing PETA shit-head throws pig blood over both me and them, I can’t read his name off the bookmark. Anyway, figuratively speaking they are bloody beautiful, or at least the photographs on the boxes are.

The other reason it’s a drag is, you know, just because of what it is. For example, with every page being annoying as all hell, you’re constantly on the look out for the end of the current chapter so you can at least feel like you’re tangibly closing in on the end; unfortunately every single page looks like the end of a chapter, since not a single one of them has text all the way down to the bottom. To test this theory I’ve been drawing a flip-art movie in one corner featuring a tiny despairing stickman throwing himself out of a sky-scraper and I’ve not had to skip a single floor. The detail is astonishing.

Eeeeeeyeah, where was I? West and his team think they know where the next piece of the jigsaw cliché is, so off they trot. In their jet black 747 with missile and gun turrets. They arrive on the Tunisian coast confidently expecting a not-previously rediscovered great wonder just hanging around waiting for them, but it’s not – so they have to look for an inlet near two rocky tridents emerging from the sea. Forgetting they are all inside a jet aircraft, Pooh Bear complains that it will take ages for them to search 100 miles of coastline by boat. At which prompting West, forgetting they are all in a jet aircraft, cunningly jumps out – “fortunately” while attached to a glorified hang-glider. So, presumably while the Jumbo Jet blasts past him at several times the speed, he spends a few hours scouting the cliff faces until he finds the tridents – but, mysteriously, not the inlet. Satisfied that this is close enough, they all land there.

But where is there? Or rather, where is the Lighthouse at Alexandria, since judging by the chapter heading that is their apparent objective? Well, apparently they aren’t looking for that at all, but instead are after “Hamilcar’s Refuge”, which they understand has a bit of the lighthouse in it. However that’s not to be seen either (Hamilcar was, we learned earlier, the father of Hannibal – the elephant one, not the Clarissssse one. Employing his deft touch with dialogue, Reilly had his hero utter a fresh contender for silliest line of dialogue ever: “I didn’t know he had a refuge, let alone a forgotten one“). The always ready Wizard whips out his (quiet at the back) sonic-resonance imager –

– erecting hush now the tripod on the sand. He then aimed it downward

– and that’s important to emphasise, Matt, isn’t it, because if the unseen object was above the ground, y’know, they’d all be able to see it. At first it shows what you’d expect, solid ground all the way down – but then Wizard aims it a few yards to the west and –

…actually, I need to interrupt.

Reilly named his protagonist “West”. You’d think he’d have the sense NOT to make every compass direction casually mentioned in the text be west as well. People keep looking westward, turning to face west, and so on. I’d change his fucking name. And start standing him south of people. Anyway, Wizard aims it a few yards to the west and –

Ping-ping-ping-ping-ping-ping-ping

The imager’s pinging went bananas.

West turned to Wizard, probably in revenge. “Explain?”

The old man looked at his display. It read:

TOTAL DEPTH: 8.0 m.
SUBSTANCE ANALYSIS: SILICON OVERLAY 5.5 m;
GRANITE UNDERLAY 2.5 m.

Get it? Get it?

“Oh, no way . . .” West said, understanding.

“Yes way . . .” Wizard said, also seeing it.

“Fuck no . . .” Cliff muttered, cringing at the dialogue.

The claim being made, and shortly being followed through on via a chapter-long trap-filled assault course race to the prize that rivals It’s A Knockout for sheer quality, is that an ancient Egyptian slave workforce built a granite roof over the top of a fifty metre wide ocean inlet with 130 metre deep cliff-walls, covered it with desert, bricked up the front and disguised it seamlessly with the rest of the coastline. That’s the claim.

MATHS TIME!

Judging by the reams of clip-art, the whole thing is at least 300 metres long – so this means a minimum 300 x 50 x 2.5 metres of granite (flat ceiling too, conveniently: “massive beams of granite–each the size of a California redwood–laid horizontally side-by-side across the width of the inlet”) which comes to… 37,500 cubic metres. Granite weighs, I understand, 2,691 kilograms per cubic metre, so… carry the two

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND, NINE HUNDRED AND TWELVE METRIC TONS.

And a half.

Plus there’s that 5.5m layer of sand on top. Let’s say “dry sand” this being Tunisia; that means the granite is supporting an extra 132,165 tons as well as its own weight. Now, I’m sure that the Great Pyramid weighs more than that, but the Great Pyramid is all piled up in a big heap – not stretched like cling film over a toilet seat. Maybe I’m wrong and a passing architect can explain how granite is more than up to the task (and how these redwood-sized granite toothpicks were moved into place as well), but…

AND I’m generously overlooking the fact, in all the pictures, the inlet branches into a vast Y-shape at the back and just heads off the page, which implies that both branches also needed covering with a granite-and-sand lid until they close up naturally somewhere else – otherwise you could just walk half a mile down the way, straight past all those lovely traps, and drop in on the goodies without all the hassle.

Not to mention that a few millennia of sea-action has apparently failed to erode the sandstone cover of the 4m thick fake wall on the front, which might make it a little easier to spot. “Not Well Thought Out”, is what I’m getting at.

Sigh.

Look, as usual I’m running off at the mouth, and badly. All that covers only the first 18 pages of a chapter that totals 95. Yet, if this was the Indiana Jones movie Reilly wishes it was, it couldn’t warrant more than fifteen minutes of screen time, twenty at most. Even s t r e t c h i n g Xh i s Xt e x t Xo u t Xa s Xm u c h Xa s XR e i l l y Xa l w a y s Xd o e s , how can he manage to make so little go so far? He should advertise Fairy Liquid. So in those 95 pages, what do they do? Find the inlet, get chased in by the Evil Americans, run through a handful of traps, discover not just one but two Pieces of Capstone, lose them, then just manage to escape without getting shot to pieces by…

THE VILLAIN

…and I think the phrase is “sheesh”.

At their head stood a man of about 50, with steely back eyes and, gruesomely, no nose. It had been cut off sometime in the distant past, leaving this fellow with a grotesque misshapen stump where his nose should have been. He should check himself in for a boob job. Plastic surgery isn’t that expensive these days, and it would do wonders for his self-esteem.

Yet even with this glaring facial disfigurement, it was the man’s clothing that was his most striking feature right now. This seems rather unlikely.

He wore steel-soled boots just like West did.

He wore a canvas jacket just like West did.

He wore a belt equipped with pony bottles, pitons and X-bars, just like West did.

He came with Action Grip and Eagle-Eye features, just like West did. And if you bought them both at the same time, you got West’s Super Action Trike for free and a discount coupon for Skeletor’s Cave Mountain playhouse. COLLECT THEM ALL ! ! !

Yes, I know. I’m being very subtle with this.

The only difference was his helmet–he wore a lightweight caver’s helmet, as opposed to West’s fireman’s helmet. #Huh, let’s-go-and-stay-at-the —

A few pages on, this brilliantly brought-to-life character says “West, West, West … You always were good. Perhaps the best pupil I ever had.” I suspect that sooner or later he will suggest they kill the Emperor and rule the universe together as father and son. Then West will get his nose cut off, have it replaced with a robot one, and in the third film will save the day with a band of midget chimps, and conveniently overlook the filthy, satisfying but unwittingly incestuous off-screen sex he’s been having with his sister for years and years. Nope. They will never mention that.

Want to guess what this guy’s fucking stupid name is?

He was Colonel Marshall Judah.

Christening your offspring with a rank has always been a bad choice – but with two?

I hope you’re ready for my victorious revenge. But first, news.

Within days of the historic meeting, the team was in Kenya–living and working and training–at a remote farm-station near the Tanzanian border. On a clear day, to the south they could see the mighty cone of Kilimanjaro peeking above the horizon.

Far from the Western world.

Far from their enemies.

The farm–very deliberately–had wide flat treeless pastures stretching for two miles in every direction from the central farmhouse.

There would be no unexpected visitors to this place.

Political naïveté on Reilly’s part? Cultural ignöránce? Not sure, but if you’re wanting to avoid “unexpected visitors” you can do quite a lot better than hiding on a white-owned farm in Central Eastern Africa. Fair enough, he didn’t pick Zimbabwe, but still. Two minutes of Googling tells me that Kenyans feel more than a little sympathy towards Mugabe’s reclamation proclamation administration. Good thing they only have to hang around until 2006, when Lily finally gets her prophetic act together.

In the ten years of meantime, the entire team have – as we noted previously – agreed to hang around on this farm in order to protect, bond with and generally help raise their globally vital infant. For example, Fuzzy – and I use that gey-sign only under protest – teaches Lily to move silently; seeing Saladin pray towards Mecca prompts an awkward conversation about why “why some Islamic women wore head-covering burqas”, apparently providing breakfast-time entertainment for everyone else. Matador/Noddy/soon-to-be-headless-Ricky Martin shows her how to be a weight for him to bench press. As for West, he reveals a lavender side to his personality and takes her to the ballet.

But two of the team deserve special note: the Irish brother and sister team of Liam and Zoe, AKA’d as Gunman and Princess Zoe. Gunman is a giant wing-nuted skin head who Lily bonds especially closely with because – and Reiily says it himself – she equals his intellectual capacities before her age reaches double-figures. “He wasn’t all that smart, but he was a great commando” he tells us, along with other gem-nuggets of empathetic characterisation, such as them watching films and reading books together, their love of dual-player Splinter Cell tournaments, playing with real plastic explosives, and…

…no-one would ever forget the famous tea party held on the front lawn one summer, with, presumably, call-sign Mister Bear, Little Dog, Big Dog, Barbie, Lilly and Gunman–huge Gunman, all 6 feet of him, hunched over on a tiny plastic chair, sipping from a plastic teacup, allowing Lily to pour him another cup of imaginary tea.

Everyone in the team saw it–watching from inside the farmhouse, alerted by a whisper from Doris. The thing was, no-one ever–ever–teased Gunman about the incident. Although, calling it an “incident”, my guess is that someone discretely asked Lily if she would point to parts of Barbie at least once over those ten long years…

Notice “Doris” slipping in there? Wondering who that is? Well, conveniently she leads me towards my next point, so I’ll tell you: she is Max/Epper/Wizard’s spouse, “a much-needed grandmotherly figure on the farm”.

Seriousness for a moment: once, in my distant past, I used to work for the army.  Don’t ask me in what capacity. I’d have to… do something to you. As a result I consider myself to be quite familiar with the exploits of yer average soldiery while at ease and, not to put too fine a point on it, I think there is another “much-needed presence” when you throw a platoon together and then expect them to spend a decade on an isolated farm.

Although she wasn’t a very girly girl, Zoe taught Lily some necessary girly things–like brushing her hair, filing her nails and now to make boys do her bidding.

Mmm-hmm. I bet she could. I bet, after ten years as the only eligible bachelorette in their inviolate two-mile radius, Zoe could teach us all a few things about making boys jump how high. In fact, I think Lily missed a trick when she labelled everyone’s special friend Princess Zoe. Princess Raleigh sounds more accurate, since I’ll bet the farm she’s been ridden round it by everyone bar Gunman since week one – and the only reason he didn’t is that he’s a bloody great man-child and doesn’t reilly know what his tinkle’s for.

Anyway, a quick update on the plot: Nothing much happens that I haven’t already summed up above (using the exact same number of words but only about 1/10th the space Reilly did) apart from the arrival of one Benjamin Cohen, call-sign Leonar– no, sorry, Archer, shortly to be changed to Stretch, a Mossad sniper and yet another passing pal of West, who has been sent by his America-and-Europe opposing superiors to help out or, if refused access, shop them all to the Yanks.

How the Israelis had discovered them, they didn’t know–but then Mossad is the most ruthless and efficient intelligence service in the world. It knows everything. Apart from… er… actually, I think I’ll leave this one alone. Just in case.

West decides to let him stay, despite insisting on no communications with the outside world on pain of blowing his brains out – which sort of suggests he could just do that anyway and save three portions of food every day for their last couple of years on the farm. But he doesn’t, leaving this so-likely-it’s-unlikely betrayer in their midst and pointedly not spending much quality time with the Arabic Saladin – another example of Reilly’s gentle touch with characterisation, motivation and international relations.

Then, when she’s almost ten, Lily – who has spent the years learning at the knee of Wizard ( oh God, the anticipation is so delicious! ) proving herself a linguistic prodigy of tongue-twisting proportions – finally finds she can read the mysterious clip-art message that has been pinned to the fridge door all this time (I’m giving Reilly and my tags a clip-art break today, there were only two in the whole chapter). She quickly spits out the very instructions that lead the team to the trapundated Sudanese temple from chapter one, and three days later – well, the rest is history.

That same day the Sun (sic) rotated on its axis and the small sunspot that the Egyptians called Ra’s Prophet appeared on its surface.

In seven days, on March 20, the Tartarus Rotation would occur.

Honestly, he does make it sound as if the sun spins like a plate on a stick, doesn’t he?

The chapter ends there – but I don’t. Oh no. There’s one last thing I have to do before I go and light up this fat stoogie and blow smoke-rings at my enormous out-of-court settlement. Let’s wind the clock back five years:

Epper was a wonderful teacher.

Lily just adored him–loved his wise old face, his kind blue eyes, and the gentle yet clever way he taught.

And so she renamed him Wizard.

Can you see where I’m going? Let’s wind it back another five years (and to Reilly’s best ever paragraph…):

A gruesome yet urgent image: flanked by the encroaching lava and the steadily lowering ceiling, the two men perform a Caesarean delivery on the dead woman’s body using West’s Leatherman knife.

Thirty seconds later,

Wizard

XXX lifts a second child from the

woman’s slit-open womb.

It is a girl.

It gives me great pleasure to TAKE BACK my retraction, and award this beautiful Absolute Failure Award (Internal Logic) to Seven Ancient Wonders, by Matthew Reilly.

Ahhh.

Pardon me, but I was remiss – again. I missed off the end of the chapter, in the process neglecting to salute a momentary decent line of dialogue, a clear explanation of what the fuck is actually going on in the plot – and a bit of trivia.

So: did you know that the Arabic phrase for “the girl” is “bint”? I didn’t, but growing up in the North West of England, bint was a label for girls there too.

How about that, eh?

…well.

Well, it turns out that there were two conversations in chapter three. Our numerically indeterminate team of heroes head for Kenya – you see, it turns out that they can’t do anything useful until Lily has grown up, meaning a race towards physical maturity is on between her and her presumably evil twin brother – not only this, but in a rather unlikely commitment to heroism the elected team members have agreed to spend the next ten years helping to raise her. Can’t wait to see how that turns out.

As they take a winding route to their destination for secrecy reasons, some more plot detail is emitted. It turns out that every 4500 years or so the sun spins like a top and the Tartarus Sunspot points directly at earth, causing a two-week 1100 Celsius heatwave that will roast rainforests, boil rivers and, of course, melt all the ice, raising sea levels by twenty metres – as Epper remarks, “Humankind will have to move indoors for that time”.

That, by the way, wasn’t the good line of dialogue I was thinking of.

It turns out that this sunspot was responsible for several major floods in recent geological history, including the Biblical one, regular as clockwork – except that the one scheduled for 2570 BC didn’t happen.

I wonder why.

That’s right, the Egyptians beat the sun at its own game! They started building giant pyramids just long enough to foil the sun’s dastardly plans, then abruptly stopped bothering right after the sunspot threat was over and never built another pyramid again. Coincidence? Reilly don’t think so! It’s all about the Capstone, see? Placed in the right place, at the right time, the crystals within it will disperse the terrible energy of the sunspot (somehow) and save us all! Hoorah!

…so why do these killjoys want to stop the Yanks or the Euros from doing just that? Well, turns out it isn’t quite that simple. There is also a sort of curse/boon thing attached – whoever has the Capstone can either save the world for a future of global equality (sounds good), or in such a manner as to gift the one nation responsible with “all earthly power” for 1000 years. Sounds bad (for everyone else).

So when Saladin summed the situation up this way, I was quite impressed.

“Or there is the third option,” Saladin said. “Our option. If we obtain a single Piece of this Capstone and withhold it, we condemn the world to two weeks of catastrophic weather and floods, but not 1,000 years of slavery. A lesser-of-two-evils argument, Dr. Epper?”

You know, that’s not all bad for an ethical conundrum, reilly. Bit far-fetched perhaps, but if we’re forgiving anything in a fantasy potboiler…

There was no clip-art in this chapter either. Smashing.

First, a retraction: I jumped unfairly to a conclusion, that Lily had call-signed Max Epper “Wizard” in chapter one, when in truth it doesn’t say that at all. I was wrong, so it’s perfectly reasonable for him to already be called that before she was born, as clearly happened in chapter two. Maybe he gave himself his call-sign, the way everyone in the present chapter does; and so, if he’s a massive wanker, it is perfectly reasonable. I hope Reilly’s lawyers will now drop that suit, thank you very much. On to the positives.

If I had to give Matthew Reilly credit for something – if I had to, gun-against-the-forehead had to – which, in fact, is exactly the situation I find myself in, hence my bringing it up – if, as I say, I had to give Matthew Reilly some credit as an author, surprisingly enough I think I could do it. In one regard, to date, here at the end of chapter three and, looking ahead, throughout the entire book, he has honed a skill demonstrably well beyond the capacities of both Cussler and Brown – yet it is merely a basic feature of the novel.

Chapters.

You see, Reilly actually uses chapters. Brown doesn’t. He double-numbers his pages, which is not the same thing – Cussler does this too. It’s very annoying to anyone who can devote more than two minutes a day to reading. Or who is able to follow a story without taking a mental breather after turning a page. Or who might own a bookmark.

Reilly, by striking contrast, collects chains of events together into an identifiable subsection of the text, chooses to preface them with a distinctive label, then does the same thing a reasonable but not excessive number of times, finally adds a cover and calls this strange object a book. It’s weird to see a total amateur absolutely nail it when the established pros still can’t get their heads around the concept. With Brown, it’s like you asked a journeyman builder to make you a sturdy outdoor toilet and he cemented all the bricks together pointing upwards, not sideways.

Huh. Now why does that last sentence seem both redundant and familiar in its detail? Ah yes, from chapter one:

The Scar.

This was a great uneven crevice that ran all the way down the rockwall (sic) , cutting across the ledges and the rockface (sic) with indifference (stupid) . It looked like a dry riverbed, only it ran vertically not horizontally.

Now there is a paragraph two words too long (at least) – but (at least) it is a part of a proper chapter, more or less, and not something barely a page long that is treated like a chapter. Actually, don’t get me wrong: Reilly sort of manages to do that as well. It’s just he doesn’t try to convince you each occurrence is a chapter, when clearly they aren’t. In fact, he doesn’t try to convince you of anything. He just does it. ALL THE TIME.

Let me give you a for example. On page 96 (that’s in chapter three, which is entitled “A Meeting Of Nations”) after the eighth line there is a break in the text. It isn’t the first (although it is a reilly special example, which I will underline shortly) and it sure won’t be the last. I don’t think it has been done for any other reason than to add gravitas to a beat in the conversation which it interrupts – and this is, more or less, the same reason for every other instance as well, be it an action sequence, dialogue, chunk of backstory, whatever: key sentence, text break, and continue. This is the form of Reilly’s writing.

But like I say, this one is special. It goes like this – in fact, let’s have it formatted, right from the top of the page (all capital letters and Best Of albums are the author’s own):

96 xxx MATTHEW REILLY

X

also the one who, according to legend, broke the Capstone down

into its seven individual Pieces–so that no one man could ever

have it whole again. He then had those Pieces spread to the distant

corners of the world, to be buried within seven colossal monu-

ments, the seven greatest structures of his age.”

x

“Who?” Abbas said, leaning forward. Sometimes my post titles just write themselves.

x

“The only man ever to rule the entire world of his era,” Epper

said. “Alexander the Great.”

x

[ TEXT BREAK ]

x

“Seven colossal monuments?” Abbas said suspiciously. “You’re talk-

ing about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? Alexander had

the seven Pieces of the Capstone buried within the Seven Wonders?”

What you can’t see here, and what makes this a reilly special example of the text break approach to narrative tension, is that after those first eight lines of text on page 96, there is nothing. The text resumes (with, as you can see, the very next horrifyingly leaden utterance of the exact same conversation) eight empty lines down on page 97.

That, for those lacking a visual imagination (Matthew), is one complete page-worth of paper. Wasted. Of course, it would be fair to say that the printing of text onto all the rest is hardly saving it from total wastage either. The weird thing is, this same conversation – which more or less comprises the whole chapter – is broken up any number of times before and after (three times on the spreads immediately flanking 96/97 alone) and yet never to this glaring extent. I Wonder (Shit. One misplaced capital and now I have to pay royalties to those Swedish vampires. Thanks a fuck-load, Matthew, your bad habits are rubbing off) whether length of text break is intended to correspond to duration of awestruck silence on the part of everyone listening to Max. I mean Epper. Or do I mean Wizard ? Christ, Reilly, pick a fucking name for the poor bastard and stick with it – you utter shit bird.

Ahhh. I feel like I’m really getting into my ranting stride now so I guess it’s time for the chapter summary. Basically, this “most important meeting” is one in which, judging by the rhetoric, eight of the world’s more emotionally insecure nations get together to stamp their feet and moan about how they are getting left out of the game by the big selfish rich kid and his “popular gang” rivals. They decide, to continue the metaphor, to collect one part of the ball everyone else wants for themselves and go running home to mummy. This is the conclusion of this vital meeting: if we can’t play, no-one can play.

Sadly they can’t just let the world’s fourth best soldier – Australia’s only representative at the chat – go at it solo, so all the other count-ries ( nope, that joke just doesn’t work in print ) involved have to nominate a team member to join in the fun spoiling.

The seven delegations formed into huddles, whispered amongst themselves. Since he was his own delegation, West didn’t need to discuss anything with anyone. What a rock he is. Simon and Garfunkel would cream themselves for this guy.

All the chosen ones turn out to be conveniently present, which lends matters the air of a rather foregone conclusion. That air is swiftly changed for one of spluttering ridicule (at least in my vicinity) when, one by one, this herd of gaping ring pieces step forward and introduce themselves. Like this:

“Captain Zahir al Anzar al Abbas, heavy arms, explosives, 1st Commando Squadron, at your command. Call-sign: Saladin.”

Bleeding fuck. Gobbing out his brand name at the end like that. He sounds like a Power Ranger. I can’t even bring myself to pity his tired limbs. But the next one is even better.

Then the Spaniards’ representative stood: tall, handsome and athletic, he looked like Ricky Martin, only tougher.

Ay, Macarena, hoy, wort eeeees gggggghyour corl-sayn, seeeenyor? Fuck you, you racist pig. It’s Matador. Nothing wrong with that. Except it means “killer”, which is why most bullfighters call themselves Toreros. Do some fucking research, igmo (actually, I just realised: Ricky Martin here is Noddy – who gets his head detonated right at the start. So, you know… nice one). Then they all do it. “Here’s me, I can do this. Call-sign: Road Kill.”

Call-sign: Toe Rag.”

“Call-sign: Fucktard.”

“Call-sign: Monkey Drummer.”

And do they somehow pronounce that colon, or do they just say it?

“Call-sign colon Colon.”

Yet, something more annoying than all this rampant geyness keeps tweaking my balls, and I’m only now starting to figure out what. First it says “eight nations”. Then, while West is all being an island up in everyone’s face, it refers to “the seven delegations” – but then there’s him too, for Australia, right? So that’s still eight, right? Now (bare with me here) every delegation nominates one representative except for the Irish, who get two because one of them is the team’s only chick, so that means nine representatives of those eight nations… right?

And there they stood, around the wide table, the nine chosen representative of eight small nations who were about to embark on the mission of their lives.

X

[ TEXT BREAK ]

X

They would acquire a tenth member soon – Stretch, from Israel – but he would not be a member of their choosing.

Okay, so that’s the Ten members of the heroic tea-

Hang on.

Weren’t they being referred to as the Nine back in chapter one? …yes, they were. They even listed all their gey-signs: Wizard, Huntsman, Witch Doctor (who is a Jamaican…) Archer, Bloody Mary (the chick), Saladin, Matador and Gunman.

And then most of them get re-geyed by Lily (who we also discover now was herself actually named by West), leading to Wizard (no change), Woodsman (sexually dubious, coming from a ten year old), Fuzzy (+ wuzzy = racism), Stretch (ah, who was Archer – so, the, from Israel, who’s name we’ve not got to yet, I think), Princess Zoe (lez gamer tag), Pooh Bear (paedophile), Noddy and Big Ears (paedophile tag team).

…but that’s still only eight. They became the Nine with Lily, but that’s only eight real people, plus a kid – who isn’t at this meeting anyway. Who has stepped up to the plate in chapter three? West, check, Wizard, check, Saladin, Matador, Witch Doctor, Sky Mon

SKY MONSTER! Right, the New Zealander who flies the impossible 747! Phew, thought I was going mad there for a moment. Okay, so, one more time, the final nine team members from the eight countries are:

Huntsman (Oz);

Wizard (Canada, eh);

Saladin (United Arab Emirates);

Matador (Spain);

Witch Doctor (Jamaica);

Sky Monster (clearly a dick – er, I mean Kiwi);

Bloody Mary (Irish); and

Gunman (Irish Two).

X

[ MATHS BREAK ]

X

Oh, plus tenth member Stretch Armstrong still to come, means…

X

[ VERY LONG FACT-CHECKING MATHS BREAK ]

X

…means Matthew Reilly can’t fucking count.

The images of West’s dreams:

West running desperately down an ancient stone passageway with Wizard at his side, towards the sounds of booming drums, chanting and a woman’s terrified screams.

It’s hot.

Hot as Hell.

And since it’s inside a volcano, it even looks like Hell.

Now. One of the following three versions is correctly emphasised – can you tell which?

“It even looks like Hell.” x “It even looks like Hell.” x “It even looks like Hell.”

Hope you enjoyed the little quiz. No answer sheets, but there’s a pretty good chance that you just scored better than Matthew Reilly would have, since – and you can confirm for yourself by reading his last sentence aloud – he has no idea of how the English language works. You may think it a little unfair of me to pull him up for using italics like this; after all I fairly pepper my commentaries with them. I suspect Matt and I both do it for the same reason: to make written English look a bit like how spoken English sounds. The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds.

The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds. Clarification

The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds. Methodological

The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds. Clarification

The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds. Uninformed

The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds. Clarification

The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds. Contradictory

The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds. Clarification

The problem is, Matt apparently doesn’t know how spoken English sounds. Exasperation

The problem is, there are very approximately a Marillion ways of emphasising spoken English and yet this professional novelist consistently manages to find ones that don’t work. There is a strong lobby group which would argue that the casual use of italics is bad form in literature generally, even in actual dialogue and certainly not polluting the narrative text itself – but I’m going to cry nay to their ayes. I say if it makes you happy, then do it – AS LONG AS YOU DO IT PROPERLY. If you can’t do it properly, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Now there’s a thought. Matthew Reilly could save a lot of trees following that philosophy.

Okay. Enough with the italics.

Boom go the drums. I meant “enough from me“. And clearly, I was lying about that too.

The evil chanting is close now.

The woman’s frenzied screams are like nothing he has ever heard: pained, desperate, primal. Rockin’…

West shoots a look to Wizard. Oh, please. If you can’t distinguish between prepositions in your first tongue, you are NOT allowed to be a writer. Your are out of the club. Go on, fuck off.

The older man waves him on. “Go! Jack! Go! Get to her! I’ll catch up! And I’d like to thank the academy – and Ed Wood Jnr. – for this Best Supporting Diction award…

West jumps feet-first into the pipe-shaft and slides fast.

Five traps later, he emerges from the bottom of the long stone pipe on . . .

. . . a balcony of some kind. Shouldn’t that pause been during the slide and not after it?

A balcony which overlooks a large ceremonial cavern. He peers out from the balcony’s railing and beholds the horrifying sight. Is it this action sequence?

“Five traps later”? It says a lot when a self-proclaimed king of booby-trap porn, at the start of only the second chapter of his trap-festooned flagship work, so loses interest in his core subject that he can barely even be bothered to mention them in passing – and I’m going to generously overlook the phrase “pipe-shaft” as much as possible. As for the formatting, have a look at this:

Boom go the drums. The evil chanting is close now. The woman’s frenzied screams are like nothing he has ever heard: pained, desperate, primal. West shoots a look to Wizard. The older man waves him on.

“Go! Jack! Go! Get to her! I’ll catch up!” Well, there’s no saving this bit.

West jumps feet-first into the pipe-shaft and slides fast. Five traps later, he emerges from the bottom of the long stone pipe on . . . a balcony of some kind. A balcony which overlooks a large ceremonial cavern. He peers out from the balcony’s railing and beholds the horrifying sight.

Now that actually looks like it might be the content of a novel. It only takes a moment’s work to turn an obvious padding exercise into proper-looking text. What could Reilly be trying to achieve, if not the obvious book stretching alluded to earlier?

Sod it. This is a short chapter, so let’s get it behind us. West witnesses a cluster of hooded priests of the ancient Egyptian variety, a platoon of French paratroopers, and the evil Juventus – excuse me, Jesuit priest del Piero stand around waiting to steal something from the still screaming and heavily pregnant woman lying utterly helpless on an alter. West heroically does nothing as, in a prophetic shaft of sunlight from above, she gives birth to a bouncing baby boy and promptly drops dead. del Piero and his cronies (definitely the word to use) march out in victory, triggering a lowering ceiling and fountains of molten lava from the pipes marked in the clip-art – oops, fuck, sorry, now I’ll have to use the tag – at the start of the chapter, just as Wizard arrives OF West’s side.

After claiming he could do nothing, West announces he’s not going to abandon Malena to be crushed (proving in the process that he knew this woman and, in my opinion, is by his inaction massively complicit in her death) so he swings down to her side. He goes into an apparent trance, rests a hand on her belly for some reason and feels the kick of… another baby! Quelle surprise. He calls “Max” to join him and – well, read it for yourself.

A gruesome yet urgent image: flanked by the encroaching lava and the steadily lowering ceiling, the two men perform a Caesarean delivery on the dead woman’s body using West’s Leatherman knife.

Well shit, I guess I’ll be throwing away my Leatherman in the morning. I’m just holding out hope that before I pass the halfway mark here West will be using Swarfega as a sexual lubricant, preferably with Wizard pitching. My DIY hobby will take a rough hit, but hell, so will West.

With a little girl in hand – and note I say hand, singular – West and Max have to flee, but there is lava everywhere and no way to stop it; or so it seems, but West’s eagle-eyes spot an off switch, hidden in a dark hole, behind a lava fall – suggesting perhaps that, for Reilly at least, there is no difference in opacity between molten rock and weak Ribena. With dazzling bravery – and Wizard’s promise that he’ll build him a robot arm that will be even better than the real one he’s about to lose – they run across a pool of lava, hang about while West pokes his unprotected arm through super-heated liquid rock and somehow turns an ancient stone switch (without snapping what’s left of his arm off until after the traps are disconnected), then run through the exit to freedom. Leaving, by the way, Malena’s body on the alter. A man of his word, is West. If his word is… er, thingie… what was it now? You know… starts with an f… damn, it was on the tip of my… whotsit…

Well, whatever. After bandaging West’s stump, Wizard contemplates the baby girl that I certainly wasn’t expecting him to find, awe-fully declaiming that “twin oracles” are “unprecedented” and that it is important that “del Piero doesn’t know” about what happened. Then he tells West that they must call the member states (of what, he doesn’t mention) and prepare for “perhaps the most important meeting of the modern age”.

A Meeting. Ooooh. I’ll take suggestions for what the previous top five vital meetings before this one were from any interested participants, and I’ll also leave you with this question to ponder:

If (in this dream that West has been having) the date reilly is 1996, and if that means this oracular baby girl reilly is Lily, and if Lily reilly was the one who gave everyone moronic novelty call-signs… then how-the-fuck-come Wizard is already called Wizard?

How do you like those italics?

Next Page »