St. Martin’s, 1999, 508 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-98126-0
Few dilemmas of genre fiction fascinate me as much as the trade-off between believability and excitement in thrillers. Make your thriller as faithful to reality as possible and there’s nothing left to distinguish it from dull newspaper headlines. Make your narrative as wild as possible and no one will take you seriously.
On the other hand, nobody ever said that “being taken seriously” was in the job description of thriller authors. So congratulations to Matthew Reilly for figuring out that sometimes, it’s better to be fast, furious, insane and action-packed than to be realistic. His second novel Temple may never survive a real-world audit, but it’s exciting like few other thrillers I’ve read recently, and that excitement does much to patch over the weaker parts of the novel.
Although mixing historical treasure-hunting with high technology has enjoyed a renewed degree of popularity since Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Reilly was there before most others with Temple. The initial hook is a staple of adventure fiction: A rare Inca idol made of extra-terrestrial material that could end up destroying a good chunk of the Earth should it fall in the wrong hands. To retrieve the idol from its current unknown location, the U.S. Army grabs academic William Race and drags him in the jungle, where he’ll have to interpret a rare manuscript, make nice with his ex-girlfriend and learn how to become an action hero against nature, Neo-Nazis and American traitors.
Busy schedule, and “busy” is only one way to describe the fever pitch of Temple when it gets running. As he runs deeper in the Andean jungle, William Race is surrounded, then abandoned by highly-trained military personnel. Occasional allies include native people and a pair of German police officers (including one coincidentally named Karl Schroeder). But it’s the variety of threats that make Temple flip over on the “wild and crazy” side of the thriller ledger. Any novel that pits giant felines against Neo-Nazis is not one to dismiss easily, especially when both of them are against an academic who’s got to learn everything about modern weaponry in the blink of an eye.
The chief attraction of Temple is how it unabashedly structures itself as a written action movie. There’s little complexity of prose and character here, but a lot of complicated action sequences and cinematic set pieces. This isn’t a book for delicate little literary flowers: this is the written equivalent to a blockbuster Hollywood action movie, and it works remarkably well at fulfilling those expectations. Many thriller writer attempt such action-heavy stories, but few of them do it as well as Reilly.
The only lull in the action comes in a pair of lengthy historical narratives forming the diary of a priest visiting the Inca empire hundreds of years before Temple‘s contemporary frame. I ended up skimming those sections with little impact on my comprehension of the rest of the story.
As for the rest, well, it’s tough to summarize boats jumping in the air and wild gun tricks. I’ll let you grab a copy of the book and find out for yourself. Just don’t expect a lot of internal coherence or even a basic respect for the laws of physics. The last death-defying climax is so ridiculously overblown that it will either make you hate the novel or seal your love for it forever: It’s the kind of things that only insane or self-confident authors can pull off, and I can’t tell if Reilly is one or the other. I’m not even sure I want to know.
One thing is for sure, though: Now that I have belatedly become aware of Matthew Reilly, it’s about time that I find out what else he’s written. Already, Contest and Ice Station have been thrown in my pile of books to read, and I can’t wait to find out if the brand of crazy action that sustained Temple is to be found in his other books. But, oh, have I got a hunch…