Pocket, 2007 paperback reprint of 2006 original, 547 pages, C$9.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-4165-0506-8
Matthew Reilly writes thrillers like Michael Bay directs movies.
I will let you figure out if this is a compliment. There’s little grace and subtlety to Reilly’s writing style and it only takes a few pages into Seven Deadly Wonders to be reminded of his overuse of exclamation points, illustrative info-graphics, short paragraphs (sometimes even one-word paragraphs) and tough-guy machismo. Every sentence has its own camera angle and his action scenes aren’t written as much as they’re loudly pounded with a thrash metal back-beat.
It doesn’t make for fine writing, but it does amount to a unique reading experience akin to an unlimited-budget summer blockbuster. Reilly’s never been one to think small, and Seven Deadly Wonders roars forward from the very beginning, occasionally pausing for explanatory interludes and flash-backs. Moving away from his usual military techno-thriller plot formula to embrace a Da Vinci Code-esque blend of modern gadgets, supernatural mysticism and historical trivia, Reilly posits a vast Antique conspiracy to hide away a terrible artefact in vast trap-filled catacombs. When three competing forces all start gunning each other to gain elements of the artefact, the fun begins.
Breaking away from his series of novels featuring top US Special Forces operative Shane Scofeild, Reilly doesn’t go looking too far for his next protagonist: Jack West Jr. is a top Australian special forces operative with two degree in ancient history –which proves handy given the book’s emphasis on ancient mysteries. Refining his usual formula of thrusting a team of special operatives against ever-increasing odds, Reilly has some fun in incorporating a ten-year-old girl in the proceedings (she ends up re-naming the rest of the team, tweaking tough-guy names like “Saladin” to something like “Pooh Bear”) and making the ensemble cast a more integral part of the story.
The biggest change in attitude between both series, however, is the inclusion of a dose of supernatural content in the form of prophecies, ancient advanced technologies and mystical light-shows. In an insightful afterword, Reilly refers to Seven Deadly Wonders as contemporary fantasy, which is really just another way of saying that he’ll push premises as far as they can go. Compared to most of the other thrillers clearly showing a Dan Brown influence, Reilly prefers a far more muscular thriller component: The book doesn’t skimp on large-scale action scenes, explosions, advanced military equipment and global power-plays. It offers a frenetic global hunt for relics of the Seven Wonders of the World and ends with a spectacular set-piece involving the great pyramid, a hovering 747 and blood sacrifice leading to no less than a thousand years of domination for the winning team. Whew!
As long as you consent to play by Reilly’s rules, this is pure escapist entertainment. Reilly’s intention to always go bigger, faster and crazier sets him apart from other writers still preoccupied with plausibility, and results in some spectacular sequences –there’s a really good set-piece set in an overhanging garden that’s as crazy as it’s entertaining. While some of Reilly’s tricks will strike high-brow readers as skirting illiteracy (read the book aloud to realize how insanely dramatic his prose style can be), there’s something fascinating in seeing him re-use blockbuster and video-game aesthetics in a prosaic context. Seven Deadly Wonders is abundantly illustrated with diagrams designed to make sense of the action, making for a very peculiar reading experience bridging the gap between prose and videogame mechanics.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Seven Deadly Wonders is how it manages to one-up much of Reilly’s already-extreme bibliography. The mysticism may be off-putting in a thriller context, but the atmosphere of everything-goes is coherent, and there’s a lot of cleverness in fitting modern action in ancient settings and layers of mythology. Reilly makes most other thriller writers look like sedate bores. There’s no need to look for social relevance or dramatic depth here: Seven Deadly Wonders is purely committed to its own aesthetics, and that’s a huge part of why it feels so interesting. Like it or not, few other writers are as dedicated at pushing the state-of-the-art in that particular direction, and even those who complain about this book being geared to the ADD generation may find something of note here.
[February 2011: A full-length review of follow-up Jack West adventure Six Sacred Stones would be redundant, as it has pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses as Seven Deadly Wonders: action-movie-inspired plotting and prose, numerous diagrams, constant movement and a blend of high tech gadgets in spectacular ancient settings. It does feel a bit duller when read shortly after its predecessors and redundant as well: The first book ended on a definitive note, whereas this one sets up a cliff-hanger to be resolved in Five Greatest Warriors. I have no plans to stop reading, but I would like Reilly to write something else at some point.]