Matthew Reilly is one of the growing number of self-published authors whose works attracted enough attention to get picked up by a mainstream publisher. His first book, “Contest”, written at 19, originally saw publication in a limited 1000 book run. Ice Station, his second book and the first book of his I ever read, put him on the map as a player in the action/adventure genre. Scarecrow Returns is the sixth book in the Scarecrow series, which focuses on the adventures of a Marine named Captain Shane Schofield, code named Scarecrow. Shofield, like other Reilly heros, inhabit the mantle left by Doc Savage, The Shadow, and others. Pulp sensibilities are the lifeblood of the books and it is never more apparent than in this particular adventure, a mission to stop a mysterious group of terrorists, the Army of Thieves, from using a secret weapon at an abandoned Russian research facility hidden in the Arctic called Dragon Island. The catch is Schofield and his team, a mismatched group of Marines, scientists, and a little robot named Bertie, have a deadline of five hours to stop the Army of Thieves from using the weapon to destroy the northern hemisphere. A team of French assassins sent by the French government to kill Schofield in retaliation for actions in an earlier book in the series complicates the mission.
The book opens with a series of mysterious events around the globe involving the emergence and growth of an organization called the Army of Thieves. Their goals are shadowy and their resources formidable. The events prove to be a prelude to the seizure of Dragon Island and the activation of its atmospheric weapon. In this case, over the course of several months, the Island puts a chemical in the upper atmosphere ignitable by a special nuclear warhead, triggering a massive fuel airburst explosion that would incinerate Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and a good chunk of North America. The Lord of Anarchy, leader of the Army of Thieves, has no ransom demands, no conditions. He simply wants to set the world on fire and watch it burn. (Not once does anyone mention the probable long term effects on the planet itself, which would pretty much spell game over for the bulk of humanity.) Captain Schofield happens to be nearby in the Arctic, part of a team of Marines and scientists testing various weapons systems for cold weather use. Soon joined in an uneasy alliance by the remnants of a French special ops team sent to kill Schofield, the group attempts to infiltrate Dragon Island, fighting their way past several hundred armed terrorists and genetically modified killer polar bears. As you might expect, the action goes beyond wild.
I made the mistake of reading “Scarecrow Returns” without catching up on the series. The last Schofield book I read was Area 7, the second book in the series. New readers may want to skip this as their first Scarecrow novel because of the number of spoilers for earlier books. There is a large back story Reilly manages to cover in between explosions. I was surprised by the number of changes in Scarecrow's life since “Area 7”, and not all the changes are for the good. The Scarecrow in this book is an emotionally damaged man, considered by some to be a “broken marine”, wrestling with inner demons. However, that doesn't stop Schofield's heroics. Like all Reilly's books, once the action starts, it never lets up and once the enemy is engaged, Schofield never has the time to reflect or let those demons slow him down. That is a pity because the few pages where Schofield is allowed to be introspective are some of the best moments in terms of giving depth to Schofield and his motivations.
Someone claimed that Reilly's books are popcorn blockbusters in the style of a Michael Bay movie or maybe a video game. While valid, I think a proper comparison would be what would Michael Bay do with a Doc Savage movie. I say that because Reilly has noted in interviews a love of the pulps, especially Doc Savage, and it shows. So the author keeps his tongue firmly planted in his cheek as he reels off one fantastic set piece after another. The violence is high, the chaos factor stratospheric, and the plausibility meter downright busted by the third chapter. The books are meant to be entertainment. While I can easily tear into a number of parts in “Scarecrow Returns” that simply doesn't make sense or where a few moments thought would have shown that the entire scenario flawed, I won't do that here. Readers come to Reilly's books wanting that popcorn movie experience, so there's a higher acceptance of the outrageous and implausible than otherwise. It's a literary roller-coaster that sacrifices characterizations, emotional depth, and any vestiges of realism for the sake of the thrill. Call it the price of admission.
Unlike Ice Station or Area 7, this book did not grip me as thoroughly. It was still a fun read, yet it did not induce the edge-of-your-seat feeling I got with the earlier books and I think part of it lay in the slick, overly neat, almost mechanical quality to the set pieces. For my money, the overload of implausibilities and imponderables sapped the suspense, along with the all too predictable number of deaths among good guys and bad. You know there's trouble when the other characters stare slack-jawed in awe as Schofield pulls off some superhuman stunt that never should have worked in a sane universe. “Scarecrow Returns”, to its credit, doesn't take itself too seriously, but that comes with a cost. The stakes never seem as real as they could have been.
It's still a good book. I might have gotten more out of it if I had read the books I skipped. I still recommend it to any lover of action-thrillers. Yet I do not consider it among the top tier of Reilly's works. In a trend that started with his Jack West series, there is a growing emphasis on the action set pieces at the expense of reader involvement with the characters, a tendency on display in “Scarecrow Returns” that may explain why I was not entirely satisfied. It says a great deal that Bertie the robot will be the one character readers may remember best: the spunky little robot steals every scene it is in and kicks serious butt in the bargain.