x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Set a course for silly

Saloon The latest novel to touch down in Dubai sends its characters to the Burj al Arab summit, Peter C Baker discovers.

The latest novel to touch down in Dubai sends its characters to the 79th floor of the Burj al Arab. Peter C Baker discovers. My quest to find and read every novel set in the UAE continues. Thus I turn to The Six Sacred Stones, a thriller by the Australian author Matthew Reilly, the paperback version of which has been popping up in bookstores here of late. Six Sacred Stones is the sequel to Reilly's Seven Ancient Wonders, but in the great tradition of bestselling thrillers, it works perfectly fine on its own. All you need to know about Seven Ancient Wonders to get by is: a motley crew of international characters got together to save the world from the Tartarus Rotation, which sounds like a dental procedure, but is really a gigantic sunspot that threatens life on Earth every 4,000 to 4,500 years.

When Six Sacred Stones opens, Professor Max Epper, nickname Wizard, call sign Merlin (almost everyone in Six Sacred Stones has a call sign or two), is spelunking in China. Some ancient hieroglyphs send him down the following line of thought: "Ra's Destroyer is Tartarus, the Tartarus Sunspot ... But Tartarus was averted ... Only ... only what if the Tartarus Event started something else, something we didn't anticipate ... And if the Firestone governs the six sacred stones, empowers them, then it's fundamental to everything ... to the Pillars, to the Machine and to the Return of the Dark Sun - oh Dear Lord." Indeed.

"I have to warn Jack and Lily," he concludes. That's Jack West Jr (call sign Huntsman). "Once upon a time," Reilly writes, "he had been ranked the fourth-best special forces soldier in the world." But now, having saved the world from the Tartarus, he lives in quiet bliss on a farm in Australia with Lily, his adopted daughter. Wizard's warning comes not a moment too soon. Upon receiving it, West looks out his window and sees "paratroopers. Hundreds of paratroopers. Coming for his farm."

And so he's off, with Lily, her friend Alby, an Irish beauty named Zoe (call sign Princess) and a hairy New Zealander nicknamed Sky Monster (call sign Sky Monster) in tow. They board the Halicarnassus, a plane Jack stole from Saddam Hussein (that's another story), and once airborne, deliberate about where to go next. "Standing in the hold, Jack recalled Wizard's message: 'WILL MEET YOU AT GREAT TOWER'. He keyed the intercom. 'Dubai, Sky Monster. Set a course for Dubai.'"

Cut to the Presidential Suite on the 79th floor of what Reilly calls the "Burj al Arab Tower". West is always welcome there: after all, in Seven Ancient Wonders, he helped the UAE and a coalition of similarly "small nations" (Canada, Australia, Ireland, Spain, Jamaica, New Zealand and Israel) prevail against multinational evil. He and his band of adventurers are quickly joined by Sheikh Anzar al Abbas, whom Jack oddly refers to as "Lord Sheikh", and who talks a bit like Yoda ("The hour is late and Captain Jack West Jr arrives in haste").

West, Sky Monster, Zoe, Lily, Alby and Sheikh Abbas sit around strategising about how to save Wizard and the world. Eventually, Sheikh Abbas's sons Zahir (original call sign Saladin, new call sign, courtesy of Lily, Pooh Bear) and Rashid (call sign Scimitar) show up. So do various other secret agents, all with their own call signs (Stretch, Astro, Vulture). As this ad hoc council is sharing information and mulling over its options, Sheikh Abbas gets a phone call.

"Call the hotel," he orders. "Order it evacuated. Now! We have to leave this building immediately. It's about to be struck by an aeroplane." I suppose I shouldn't say whether Jack saves the Burj al Arab, though it wouldn't be so serious a spoiler; over 400 pages of Stones remain after the question is settled. But though our adventurers flit to Stonehenge, China and all over Africa, there is no more Dubai, save for a three-page interlude where Lily remembers happier times: a New Years Eve celebration on the Burj al Arab's helipad.

I e-mailed Reilly earlier this week to ask him my usual questions (why Dubai? and so on), but he hasn't written back yet. His website features a 118-question long Frequently Asked Questions section, the last question of which is "Can I contact you? Will you reply?" "Replying has become harder and harder," he answers. "That said, I probably reply to one in every four that I receive! This list of questions has been compiled based on the most sought-after answers from e-mails, forums, appearances and interviews."

The list is indeed expansive. Where does Reilly get his ideas from? "Books, the newspaper, science magazines." How much license does he take with reality? "A lot! To me, my books are fiction ... Hopefully most people won't be able to tell what is real and what is not." What did he think of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace? "Didn't think it was as good as the original trilogy." Favourite comic strip? "Garfield." Can I be an extra or stunt person in a Reilly movie? "Yes." Does he have any words for the media? "You have to watch your words very, very carefully, because everything you say can be quoted." Is he trained in a martial art? "I've done some karate."