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11 Sep 2010

The Scarecrow Series by Matthew Reilly

If you have not read Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow series and intend to, watch out for ***Spoiler Alert*** and skip those lines of text until you hit the next blank line.

It is as if Reilly has a load of these 'ideas' and can't decide which to use in his book, so he uses them all. Each one is better than the last one - faster, bigger, whackier, whatever. Every one of his books, including the promotional one makes an impact right from the start. 

He creates a line of history across each of them for those who read all the books in sequence, still maintaining an integrity that allows you to read each book as a standalone. There is a start, an end and enough punch in between that simply throws you into the midst of all the action before you get up and dust yourself out.

One thing I noticed is that he consistently maintains Shane Schofield, call-sign Scarecrow, on the defensive side of the attack. At the start of every action, well not right at the start but halfway through losing half his men but still the beginning of the attacks, Schofield tells his men that their aim is to "keep moving" to "stay alive". Every one of the Scarecrow books has that theme - staying alive. The books start with a certain mission at hand that goes awry and is filled with surprise attackers, modern technology (as modern as the book can get i.e. the next book has something more modern than the last, noticeable if you read it in sequence), disobedient Marines or infiltrators in his team. 

The books follow a general blueprint without each being the same book. It is as if the blueprint keeps the books under one canopy even as they can be detached from the previous or the next one. The action scenes are different in all. 

***Spoiler Alert*** 
Take Gina 'Mother' Newman, for example. She is one hell of a survivor but her methods are entirely different each time. She survives the worst of the offenders and near-death scenes in all the books, not once repeating tricks. The tactics and techniques used the Marines are different in all the books. They blend with the situation and, without standing out, become life-savers for one or more Marines, almost always involving the Scarecrow. In one, I learnt about the Sydney Harbour Bridge action of the Maghook, another spoke of the leapfrog technique. He just has so many different kinds of unique action scenes under his belt. 

Another remarkable thing is the Bond-like license that Schofield has, the freedom to blow up buildings and cause massive destruction. In fact, that is his trademark. The books carry that on rather proudly. In fact, in Scarecrow, there is a time when Mother asks him about the destruction he has caused, while they patch up over their headphones. When she arrives at the castle in France and sees the damage, she knows Schofield has been there. It is that liberty that adds much flavour to the drama. It is like salt in your food. No matter what else you add, if there isn't a pinch of salt, the food never tastes the same. (Note: No spoiler alert here because it is a fairly insignificant detail that reveals itself in the early stages, as the story unfolds)

In the end of a book, Schofield survives. You know that. There would not be a series if he did not. Except for the last book, where you do not know whether he survives. Yet, you can't help wondering if something might go wrong, if someone else (like Mother, who seems to outlast everyone else in his team) might die. Reilly has, from time to time, shown that none of his characters are safe. It is his secret weapon to keep the readers on their toes, to be unpredictable.

 ***Spoiler Alert*** 
When he killed Libby 'Fox' Gant in Scarecrow, it was heartbreaking. The story was heading somewhere, with a hint of a loveline when suddenly he yanks the cord and snaps it off. I kept waiting to find out she had survived it somehow, even when I knew that the Knight had seen her head being cut off. It is a book, poetic license, she could come back - that's what I kept thinking. However, he kept it real. He did not use his poetic license there. It added to the reliability of the story. Added to the flavour of the drama. It brought out emotions his earlier books had not.

Schofield's mission is never what it started off with. In all the 4 books of the series, it is the same deal. Reilly does not lose time getting to the point. Buckle up and arrive at the destination. Bam! Yet, each one is different in some ways. When he is finished, it is not merely the end of an action but a final say in a story. Somehow, Reilly manages that. 

 ***Spoiler Alert*** 
In one, he just goes back home alive, another he tries to saves the President of the US, in another he foils an explosive plan by the negative protagonists of the book. There is always a purpose, always something that was righted in the end. By the time you reach the last book, you might expect him to go on another purposeful mission that goes haywire. Hell, no! The mission itself is to right something that has gone haywire. If I thought it was because the book was, as someone told me, a 'promotional' attempt, he proved me wrong. There was a twist towards the end. Then another, so he could end it with the Scarecrow series signature.

Another common thing in all of the books was the presence of scientists and their fantastic, ultra-modern, secret experiments. There is the appearance of at least one non-Marine in their midst that may or may not live to tell the tale. One that helps them where they have no knowledge or leads them on to something. One that could be a burden while they are trying to save their own lives but it all fits in snugly. The backdrop of the story is the United States and the fact that it is a Superpower. I was impressed with the research and the wealth of information, albeit he has professed to using a fair bit of poetic license. Initially, I wondered why an Australian chose to write about the US army. By the end of the series, I knew the answer. That is where the canvas is the vast as the sky, allowing for the most creative, not to mention powerful, imagination to unfurl. 

Whether it is the regular novel-sized story that the first three were or the slim book that Hell Island was, there are all the elements that make Reilly's books what they are. Powerful and racing like a bullet.

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