Contest by Matthew Reilly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I will never forget the moment I formed a bond with an Australian author named Matthew Reilly. It was a spur of the moment thing. If I had not grabbed a book off the shelf of the San Diego Public Library called Ice Station, I might not be writing this review. But I did, and it changed my life.
I cut my teeth on action movies. I started watching them when I was very young, and they hold a special place in my heart. While I am a romance novel and fantasy book fan first and foremost, I have always loved a good action yarn. But I had no idea that they had books that gave the adrenaline jolt that a good action movie could deliver. Matt Reilly taught me differently.
But I can admit I did feel a bit nervous to read his first book. I think it's different when you read a first book first from an author you come to love and buy the telephone book if he/she wrote it. You see their talent and writing skill develop and progress for the better. But when you go back, even when you love their writing, you still feel like you'll cringe at the boo-boos because you have their later work to compare to it.
I like that Reilly wrote an afterword and explained the process of getting this published, and admitting that he revised it, and what was changed and what wasn't. I can see that his writing has improved, but what makes him a favorite of mine is essentially there. He has a way of building a story methodically and setting the scene without extra frills. Nothing is introduced for a lack of reason. It all plays a role, sooner or later. I like that about his writing. I love that he can keep me on the edge of my seat, and he has a way of sustaining tension. I go from thinking the character is toast, and then watching the situation turn around so they manage to get out of that tough situation.
While Reilly's writing is not exactly focused on character development, but always he gives us a main character who gains my loyalty. That was the case with Swain. Swain is a normal guy who steps up to the plate to be a hero when the situation calls for it. It's this trait that gets him into the bizarre situation of being chosen as the third human in 6000 years to compete in the galactic combat competition that takes place in the New York Public Library. He had to compete and he had to make it to the end, but that didn't mean he'd compromise his ethics in the meantime. In that way, character development is crucial even in this fast-paced book.
I liked the twist that Swain's daughter is present. I think it changes the dynamic considerably. He not only has to watch out for himself, but keep his daughter safe, and that changes the decisions that he makes throughout the story. I have a soft spot for heroes who are dads, so that definitely warmed me to him. Holly is not just a prop or a plot point, she does play a significant role in this book, within reason, for a seven-year-old in such a dangerous situation.
I was curious to see who the other combatants would be, and I admit, I was a tad disappointed with the makeup. I wanted more sentient combatants. But Reilly says in his afterward that he wanted to write a monster story, so that explains why the other combatants are mostly monsters. At any rate, I still liked what I got, and I especially liked that Swain was outnumbered and outgunned, but he still managed to turn things around. His way of doing it was cool too. He wasn’t a pumped up muscle man, but a thinker and an analyzer, from beginning to end. Some of his success was due to providence, luck, and assistance from others, but overall, you get the impression that Swain was the right guy to handle the situation.
“Contest” is surprisingly less gory than some of Reilly’s later works. I’m kind of glad about that, since I cringed when characters I liked died violently in his later books. I’m not putting him down. I love the guy, but I do wish his books weren’t so gory at times.
“Contest” is a roller-coaster ride, good old science fiction action adventure with monsters. While it broke my heart to see the beautiful library and its priceless books destroyed, I’m glad it was just fiction, and in a way, it’s cool to blow up something like that with impunity in a fiction story (I guess). My book-loving heart can’t stand the idea of a library getting nuked, and I mourned it along with the deaths of other characters in this book.
I’d recommend this book to readers who really like action/adventure and an everyman hero who is in over his head, but still manages to save the day.
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