Book Review: Hell Island by Matthew Reilly

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Hell Island was released in 2005 as part of the Books Alive promotion – the only way to get it at the time was to buy another Australian book in order to receive it for free. Given Matthew Reilly’s popularity at the time, it was a brilliant idea. People (including me) were desperate to get their hands on it. (I bought a Phryne Fisher book by Kerry Greenwood – didn’t like it but love the TV series that is based on the book series.) That was when I first read it.

The story is part of the Shane Schofield narrative, Reilly’s heroic US Marine who always seems a little smarter, a little stronger, a little more strategic than everyone else around him and one hell of a survivalist. In the Schofield chronology, it takes place after Scarecrow and before Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves but is easily removed from it. And enough is regurgitated to make this a stand-alone book.

In the novel, Hell Island is a remote place in the Pacific, seized by the US from the Japanese during World War II and scrubbed from the maps so that the Department of Defense could use it in secret. Schofield leads one of four special forces teams that are parachuted in to different geographic points to investigate why contact has been lost with the island and the carrier ship currently docked there and what has happened to the 600 soldiers it delivered. There are bullet casings and blood everywhere but no bodies. Within minutes, two of the four special forces teams are obliterated. Schofield and his team listen to them all die over radio communications. Then a dishevelled scientist appears to inform Schofield about the questionable DARPA experiments that have been taking place and the investigation is forgotten. All they can try to do now is to survive.

Matthew Reilly does everything that writers are told they shouldn’t do. He uses italics for emphasis – a lot – and horribly overuses exclamation marks. The dialogue is absolutely terrible and his characters aren’t much better; they’re all very black and white – heroes and villains, leaders and followers, sceptics and true believers. And the plot is very Planet of the Apes.

And despite all of this, it works. Not brilliantly but well enough, particularly for his targeted demographic – men who like to blow shit up or like to watch shit being blown up (Reilly has always said his main goal was to write entertaining books that got boys and men reading again). His research is impeccable and the book is full of Super Hornets and Tomcats and K-bars and C-2 and M-4s, delivering a real sense of authenticity.

There’s nothing subtle or subtextual but it would be wasted if there was because the demographic reading it wouldn’t notice. Instead, it’s the kind of book that hits the reader straight between the eyes. It’s all action all the time from the moment you begin reading the first page to the moment you close that back cover. The whole story takes place within about four hours and the body count is enormous – over a thousand and probably closer to fifteen hundred. Let’s face it – neither Matthew Reilly nor this book are ever going to win any awards but he’s sold so many at this point that it’s unlikely he cares.

If you’re looking for breathless entertainment that doesn’t require thought or logic, then Hell Island (and all Matthew Reilly’s books) will be exactly what you are looking for. And sometimes, between collections of poetry and literature so important that it hurts both the eyes and brain to read, that’s exactly what we need.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 1 January 2017

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