Thursday, 24 September 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner:Army of Thieves (Night's Black Agents)

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves is the most recent incarnation of Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow, his Marine Corps hero not seen since Hell Island in 2005. This time Captain Schofield has to save the world from a Soviet era doomsday device, which has been captured by the Army of Thieves, an Anonymous-style terror group with a battalion strength armed force at its command. The Army is hiding out in a remote Soviet fortress on Dragon Island, a former test base for superweapons, currently mothballed. Can Scarecrow stop the Army from unleashing a weapon that will, in one fell swoop, ignite half the world in a fireball that will wipe out billions?

I picked this up as a freebie, hoping that it would give me some Night's Black Agents material. Having read it, I'm confident that Reilly is, or was, a gamer. Nobody's that obsessive over maps and tactical minutiae without spending at least a portion of their misspent youth crawling down a dungeon corridor, ten foot pole in hand, checking for traps every step of the way.

The maps are really what caught my attention, and the reason why I'd recommend this to a Night's Black Agents director. Every step of Scarecrow's way is carefully planned out, and that includes pretty much every part of Dragon Island. Ah, Dragon island, where they test themobaric weapons, acid grenades, and train mutant polar bears to kill on command.

'This,' Ivanov said, 'is the Stadium. This is where my colleagues tested the bears in combat.' 

You have my undivided attention, Mr Reilly.

However, as with the Book of Spies mentioned previously, there's a lot not to like here. Reilly has a nasty habit of telling you what you ought to feel, rather than letting you feel it. He'll write a paragraph or two describing how the flesh and skin melts off a victim of acid attack, as they claw their eyeballs out in agony, and then he'll say 'It was really disgusting,' or something like it. Of course it's disgusting, but the reader doesn't need the author telling everyone that. It's disgusting on its face, without need of embellishment. Plus, there's the ! recurring ! exclamation point ! issue, which arises whenever ! tension ! needs ! to ! be ! heightened. Thankfully these writer's tics tend to calm down later in the book, and he resorts to them less often.

Certainly, in terms of writing style, this book flows more smoothly than Book of Spies, which is a bonus. Partly this is because the protagonists have a lot to do, and keep on doing it. Schofield and his team never slow down, rattling on from one action moment to the next with barely a pause for breath.

On that note, pop quiz: would you survive in Scarecrow's world? Answer the following questions:

1) Do you have a cool nickname, like Scarecrow, Barbarian, or Fox?
2) Are you in love with one of the story's supporting characters, who has no real personality but who's described as physically attractive?
3) Are you a robot?

If the answer to all of those questions is No, then sucks to be you, sunshine. You're going to be shot - usually in a hail of overwhelming gunfire, so your body is torn to shreds - blown up by a thermobaric grenade, such that your body vanishes in a puff of logic, immersed in acid, or otherwise messily torn to shreds. Possibly by a mutant polar bear, because hey, polar bears. You can pretty much tell from the opening paragraphs who's going to live and who's going to die, and though Reilly does pull some intriguing fake-outs, ultimately there's an element of predictability about the whole thing that undercuts the action on the page.

That said, there is a lot of action on the page. Buckets and buckets of action, with plenty of casualties and loud explosions. To give you a taste: the French have put a bounty on Schofield's head, because in previous installments Schofield not only sank a French submarine, he also blew up a French aircraft carrier, killing everyone aboard. Now, to sink one tiddly sub is excusable, but to blow up an aircraft carrier - in fact, the only carrier the French have, according to Wikipedia - seems a little careless. Before we're even a fifth of the way through the book yet another submarine is on its way to the bottom. You begin to wonder whether the French navy is going to be reduced to two rubber dinghies and a sobbing subaltern before the series is over. And that's just the French; there's still a whole army of crazy terrorists to get through before the book's done.

I don't recommend this as high art, because God knows it ain't that. It's Pulp, Pulp and more Pulp, entertainingly written, but ultimately forgettable. The sort of thing you'd pick up on a long flight, in fact, much like Book of Spies.

However I do recommend it to any Night's Black Agents Director looking for inspiration for the next Conspiracy Node in the Pyramid. The maps alone are worth a look at. Plus there are plenty of intriguing tech-toys to steal for your campaign, and some brilliant chase scenes to borrow wholesale.

I don't know whether it's worth having a look at the rest of the series - there are five Scarecrow books in all - but I'm reliably informed that one of them involves recovery of an alien spaceship, while another has mutant killer gorillas. Whose heart is so hardened that they can say No to killer gorillas?


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