Who'll defend earth?

Who'll defend earth?

The Four Legendary Kingdoms
Matthew Reilly,
2016, pp 430,
Rs. 499

Right from the first scene of The Four Legendary Kingdoms, we know what we’re in for. Our hero, Jack West, wakes up in a dark room, wondering how he got here. Suddenly a minotaur attacks him. West is completely unprepared, dressed in just slacks and a Homer Simpson T-Shirt. Of course, he still manages to win the fight.

Fans of Matthew Reilly have waited a long time for this book. This is the fourth one starring Jack West, a super soldier who’s specialised in archaeology. He’s bulldozed his way through secret societies and elaborate conspiracies before. His adventures typically range all over the world, focusing on ancient spots like the Pyramids of Giza and Easter Island. He’s already found the real tomb of Jesus Christ, with the body still in it. In previous books, he has been revealed to be the prophesied ‘Fifth Warrior’, the successor to the previous warriors, Moses, Jesus, Genghis Khan and Napoleon Bonaparte. He’s built up a group of friends ranging from Israeli snipers to Egyptian oracles. Think of him as an Indiana Jones with Jack Reacher’s strength, as written by Dan Brown.

The Four Legendary Kingdoms starts with Jack West thrust into a gladiatorial contest, consisting of nine challenges. A total of 16 such ‘champions’ have been selected to fight these challenges. Most of them have known of the contest beforehand, and prepared for it for years. They’re all from paramilitary forces from around the world. West, however, was drugged and kidnapped on the eve of the contest, and has regained consciousness just in time to fight the minotaur (really just a man with a bull-shaped helmet). The purpose of the contest is to decide on the most worthy champion to represent earth. Somehow this is connected to a distant galaxy hurtling towards the Milky Way, which will annihilate all life on earth.

The champions represent four shadowy kingdoms (hence the title) which have ruled the earth since time immemorial, and the winning kingdom will take some sort of leading role in deflecting the galaxy’s threat. The venue of the contest is the underworld, ruled by Hades —  not a mythical place, as it turns out, but a real one that has been misinterpreted in the old legends.

The first challenge is to race to the other end of a giant pit being filled up with water. While the champions are in the pit, they will be chased by specially trained goons, dressed up as other figures from Greek mythology. Once you’re done with this one, you’re thrown into the next challenge. You can only exit the competition by dying. And the people you love most are kept hostage nearby to ‘motivate’ you to keep competing.

That’s how much Jack knows. For now, though, he’s put through tougher and tougher physical contests to overcome — outrunning waterfalls, solving deadly mazes, fighting muscled goons dressed up as mythical beasts. All the contests are being watched and applauded by the royalty — that is, the rulers of the four kingdoms.

The one twist that Reilly avoids in these books is magic or wizardry. The weapons are all real ones, whether modern or medieval; the ‘mythological beasts’ are all people dressed in shaped armour. Where improbable things are introduced, they’re brought in as (pseudo) scientific concepts  and not ‘magic’. Hades is a normal person, and the minotaurs Cerberus, Hydra and so on are not magical but realistic things or people. Yes, conspiracy theories abound, and the science is not really believable in places, but it’s all set up to be possible and not magical.

Reilly’s writing style is urgent, all one-line paragraphs and exclamation points. The feeling is like playing one of those 80s platformer games, like Contra or Metroid. You’re swept from one action set-piece to the next with hardly a pause for breath. Plot holes aplenty, but no time to analyse or criticise... the next deadly challenge has already begun. You try to finish the whole 400-plus pages in one giant bite.

Reilly has clearly put quite a bit of thought into the mythological and historical aspects of the book, tying up several different cultures and legends into the story. The scale of the book is huge, as are the action sequences. This book also features a cameo appearance by another Matthew Reilly character — it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the blurb, but hey, the internet’s already spoiled this one for everyone. It’s the perfect airport thriller, and leaves you wanting more. Make sure you leave your brain aside, though.

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