Pocket Books, 2011 reprint of 2010 original, 574 pages, C$9.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-4165-7758-4
Consistency is usually a good thing for authors and their readers. Writers accumulate fans thanks to their particular set of strengths, after all, and the path to popular success is capitalizing on the reason why buyers will pick up books by authors they like. Matthew Reilly has developed a reputation as the novelistic equivalent to a big-budget action-adventure movie director: He writes novels as if they were action movies with an unlimited budget, and dangerous spectacle is his stock in trade.
Still, there’s something to be said against too much consistency. The Five Greatest Warriors is the third novel in the “Jack West Jr.” series, but while I reviewed first volume Seven Ancient Wonders a few months ago, I found nothing interesting to say about sequel The Six Sacred Stones given how similar it was to its predecessor. This third entry isn’t all that different from the second one and what had been a lack of variety now becomes a bit of a problem.
Tough audiences that readers are, there’s a fine line between consistency and self-repetition, and The Five Greatest Warrior tiptoes a bit too close to the edge. The blend of high-tech action theatrics with mysterious ancient fantastic settings and low-grade mysticism that seemed so interesting in The Seven Deadly Wonders now seems like more of the same, repeated again.
The biggest problem of the Jack West Jr. series so far is the inherent problems in having a sequel to world-saving heroics. Once characters have saved the world once, what’s to do for an encore? Save it again? Reilly’s oft-stated wish to go faster and bigger with each successive novel runs into self-defeating diminishing returns. Little can surprise these characters now, and rehashing yet another set of ancient mysteries coupled with mystical cosmic alignments can get less and less forgivable.
The formula that seemed so crazy (in a good way) at first glance can now seem crazy (in a bad way) when it’s repeated again with minor variations. Lessening the blow somewhat is that The Five Freatest Warriors is a wrap-up of the plotline introduced in The Six Sacred Stones: Nobody really relieved that Jack West Jr. was dead when, at the end of the previous volume, he leaped into a pit. Not only is he alive and healthy in this sequel, but he wraps up the adventure even though, at nearly 1200 combined pages, it feels far too long for its own good.
At least the action set-pieces are, as usual, ingeniously constructed. As West and his group keeps unearthing fantastic ancient sites, we get to go inside a tower set in a Mongolian crater, run around a massive Japanese complex, and give a spectacular send-off to the 747 that starred in the series so far. Massive inverted pyramids are found everywhere, and helpful diagrams will make it easier for readers to keep up with Reilly’s videogame-influenced imagination.
Sceptics should be warned that The Five Greatest Warriors is definitely not the book that will change their minds about Reilly’s work: His narration is still just as full of exclamation points, one-word paragraphs and cliffhanger chapter endings (If you want to speed-read Reilly’s work, simply glance at the last sentence of each chapter. All action, no filler.) Maybe there’s an argument to be made for readers to let a generous amount of time elapse between every book of the Jack West Jr. series: Its thrills operate on a too-similar level to sustain close comparison, so a bit of distraction can work wonders for those coming back to Reilly’s universe.
Still, it works. Reilly can stuff more imaginative concepts in a disappointing novel than most other reality-bound writers can manage in a handful of theirs. (In this volume, his idea for “living human tombs” manages to strike a nerve.) The series may look like a bunch of dumb action thrillers, but Reilly repurposes a lot of historical research, trivia and coincidences for his own purposes. For all his faults, he knows what he’s trying to do and reading his self-interviews at the end of each book is worth the trouble if only because he manages to pre-empt most of the basic criticism about his own novels. Referring to the Jack West Jr. as contemporary epic fantasy pretty much says it all, really.
The interview also outlines the rest of the series, down to “The One Something Something”. I’m not in any hurry to see the rest of the sequence, but keep in mind that this may be about satiation more than disappointment. Let Reilly write something else for a moment, and in a few years, who knows, I may be in the mood again for that kind of spectacular blow-em up action thriller.