Contest, Matthew Reilly

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 1996 (2003 rewrite), 334 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-28625-2

I have praised Matthew Reilly’s madness before, but it turns out that I really had no idea of what he was really capable of writing: Contest, his true first novel, provides a look at Reilly’s least-controlled, most chaotic self. The book’s publishing history itself has become a bit of a legend among Reilly fans: Written while Reilly was still in university, the book was rejected by numerous publishers before being self-published. Some of those copied were snapped up by an editor who commissioned Ice Station, and the rest has become publishing history.

This edition of Contest is not the original version: It has been re-written with more characters, set in a slightly different location and presumably americanized for its intended audience. But it clearly does show an undisciplined, hyperactive writer who cares a lot more about breakneck pacing than originality or even plausibility.

The premise itself is the kind of nonsense from which B-movie parodies emerge: In an intergalactic tournament where warriors from alien races battle each other for the prize, the latest iteration takes place… in the main branch of the New York Public Library. After careful consideration, a humble New Yorker doctor/dad has been selected to represent the human race. After dark, let the game begin!

It’s tough to take the novel seriously after that, especially given the weak and far-fetched justifications used to set an alien rampage inside the NYPL. No amount of hand-waving or advanced technology can make this premise work well, and it’s further evidence of Reilly’s insanity that he never seriously tries: we quickly gather that he’s really writing a B-grade movie, and whatever exposition would be too troublesome to put on screen is simply discarded. It’s worth noting that the book jacket blurb never mentions the word aliens, or even alludes to the novel’s science-fictional nature.

Fortunately, there are plenty of plot complications to keep us busy: Despite the so-called ironclad rules of the tournament. Our hero is actually stuck in the NYPL with his daughter, and at least one contestant is cheating like crazy. (The alien context overseers really don’t come across as particularly competent.) Some of the plot developments can be seen well in advance (say, as soon as the character is informed that “if you leave the Library, you have fifteen minutes until your bracelet explodes”), while other plot developments are sheer authorial bravado: As usual, never assume someone’s dead until you can conclusively identify the body. And always leave room for the possibility that the author is lying to you.

There are few other ways to say it: Contest is often a ridiculous excuse for a novel, a cheap B-grade exploitation action movie somehow written in prose. But it does have energy, some misguided cleverness and a three-pages-a-minute pacing. It’s bad, bold and yet good, certainly a promising work from a thriller author who would learn much in his latter novels. But I feel safe in saying that there hasn’t been a thriller set in a library quite like this, and even if I think that the premise would have been just as interesting in a more realistic context (say, with criminals and mercenaries as the contestants in a crazy game-show: see MEAN GUNS for a version of this), the finished product remains a better-than-average commuter read. Latter novels have shown Reilly forging himself a reputation as a fast-paced, low-realism, go-for-broke writer, and Contest shows him at his least polished, most visceral state. It’s a must-read for Reilly fans, and memorable experience for others.

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