Saturday 15 May 2010

Legend or Action?

Compare and contrast two books: Alan Fenton’s The Return of Arthur and Matthew Reilly’s Seven Ancient Wonders. The first is a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend – I had this in hardback many years ago and recently received a review copy of a new edition together with its sequel. The second is a bit like Dan Brown on acid. Reilly started out writing action books, some could only be described as military thrillers, but the recent stuff has a conspiracy-theory twist – at one point a character in the Louvre even says he’s having a “Dan Brown” moment. I read Seven Ancient Wonders a few years back but since I just got the third in the trilogy, I thought I’d start again.

So – Fenton tells (note that word – it’s important later) the story of King Arthur in modern Britain, where scientist Merlin teaches at a boy’s school and Arthur is the son of a politician. Now I’m a sucker for Arthurian legends, but while this is competently written, there’s no real pace or drama. Arthur does this, Merlin does that; nobody even seems to notice when Merlin does a vanishing act. I just don’t feel I know or care about these people. The book is still on my bedroom floor and I have doubts about whether I’ll find the enthusiasm to finish it, much less read the sequel.

Reilly on the other hand. This guy breaks all the rules. The plots are preposterous – we have crack commando teams evading quicksand and finding bits of pyramid around the world and attempting to prevent some cataclysm and fulfil ancient prophecies (you get the Dan Brown analogy now?). The actual writing is littered with exclamation marks, bits in italics, odd paragraph breaks, explanatory pictures and maps. There are plane chases, impossible escapes, implausible action sequences, but God, do I want to keep reading?

So what’s better? Fenton telling us a story with no real depth or pace? Or Reilly’s edge-of-the-seat showing us the action at breakneck speed? I know who I’ll carry on reading.

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