Book Review: Hover Car Racer by Mathew Reilly

Since its birth science fiction has pondered about how future technology will shape society. Some works ask this with regards to big concepts such as colonizing the stars or the future of geopolitics. Then there are works which tackle more mundane matters such as sports and entertainment. In this review we’re going to tackle a novel that looks at the future of racing. We’re reviewing Hover Car Racer by Mathew Reilly.

Hover Car Racer takes place in the not too distant future where transportation has been revolutionized thanks to magneto hover drives which draw power from the Earth’s magnetic field. The sports of racing has also been revolutionized by hover technology, and hover car racing draws millions of viewers and captivates countless nations. The book follows a fourteen-year-old hover car racer from Australia named Jason Chaser. Jason has just lost one of the biggest races of his life, but he’s also attracted the attention of former racing champion Scott Syracuse. Before long Jason and his little brother Bug are whisked away to the International Race School in Hobart, Tasmania. Jason and Bug are about to be in for the ride of their lives.

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Yeah, if you’re thinking that this book kind of sounds like Harry Potter meets Speed Racer, you wouldn’t be too far off. That having been said, it doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable. What makes Matthew Reilly such a talented writer is the way that he is takes concepts that seem cliché and manages to make them feel fresh and exciting. He may write books that are primarily intended to be fun and entertaining, but it’s clear that he puts a lot of hard work and effort into his books.

This book had been on my to-read list for a while, and I’m certainly glad that I finally got around to it. If you’re sick of books that spend too much time on filler, padding and introspection then you’ll enjoy this book. Everything that happens has some significance in advancing the plot. The plot and action moved by like a speeding hover car, but it never felt rushed or poorly paced. This was a really fun book, pure and uncut fun. Blame it on all of the Mario Cart I used to play, but I’ve always had a soft spot for racing stories.

One of the great things about this book is the applicability of hover car racing. Mathew Reilly has mentioned that he deliberately inserted similarities to real sports so that readers could identify with hover car racing even though it is fictional. The most obvious influence is, naturally, racecar driving, but the way matches and tournaments are arranged contains elements of tennis, cricket and even soccer. The book itself even describes racing hover cars as being akin to racing fighter jets.

Now let’s talk characters. What I liked about Jason wasn’t so much what he was as what he wasn’t. A lot of people’s complaint with Speed Racer is that Speed is a boring invincible hero who is guaranteed to win no matter what, but that’s not the case with Jason. He has to actually work for his victories, and there are just as many times that he fails as when he succeeds. This makes all of the races genuinely suspenseful sense there’s no guarantee that Jason will come out on top. It also makes his hard work and victories feel genuinely satisfying.

In other notable characters we’ve got Ariel Piper, the sole female racer at the International Race School. I liked that she and Jason were merely close friends rather than love interests. It made their relationship more unique, well, that and the three year age difference between them made romance unlikely. One of the big things with Ariel is her having to overcome the sexism and prejudice within the racing world. Admittedly, I don’t know much about real world racing, so I can’t say if that was supposed to be some sort of commentary. Also, for those concerned about a potential lack of female main characters, we have Jason’s mech chief Sally McDuff. She’s something of a surrogate big sister to Jason, and I loved their constant banter.

Also, on a minor note, pretty much every French character who appears in this novel is a complete jerk with absolutely no redeeming qualities. To be fair this does tend to pop up in most Mathew Reilly novels, and it didn’t bother me that much. To balance out the French characters we have Jason’s hometown rival Barnaby Becker, and Prince Xavier Xonora who hails from a small Italian principality located near France…okay, Xavier is a half example. Mathew Reilly has gotten better about this in his more recent novels, but all I’m saying is something tells me his novels typically don’t get translated into French very often. That’s also probably why none of the major races took place in France, despite their history of racing.

In terms of technical aspects the books is a bit of a mixed bag. Magneto drives sound good in theory, but certain details don’t quite add up. It is explained that they get their power from the Earth’s magnetic field, and yet they need to be recharged. Hmm, maybe whatever lets them tap into the magnetic field is what needs charging? There’s also the fact the real estate mogul, and Jason’s eventual sponsor, Umberto Lombardi has built multiple versions of Venice across the world. Not too bad, except that the first one was built next to the original Venice. Unless the original was threatened due to climate change I don’t see why he would do that. It also reminds me of that scene in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie where Mr. Krabs builds a second Krusty Krab next to the original.

On the more realistic side, the hover cars are kept from accidentally plowing into buildings by Dead Zones. Dead Zones project a frequency that completely drains a hover car’s magneto drives if it gets within a certain distance. These, along with less powerful versions known as de-mag strips, are one of the many hazards facing racers. The hover cars themselves are descendants of Formula 1 racecars, which does feel like it makes senses given how aerodynamic they are. I also loved the different course designs. You’ve got traditional speed races, point based gate races and tournament match races. Mere seconds can make a world of difference in a race, and drivers often find themselves choosing between a full pit stop or hoping their cars can last until the next round.

There’s a ton of references to classical works scattered throughout the novel. For example, we’ve got a hero named Jason who pilots The Argonaut, flies through two clashing icebergs and towards the end of the novel he retrieves a Golden Fleece as part of the final race. Jason falls in love with a girl named Dido who ultimately proves to be a distraction on his quest. Later we see a Greek racer who pilots a car called the Arion, after the horse of Heracles, and there’s a few other references as well. You don’t have to catch any of these references to enjoy the novel, but it gives you a little something extra.

No review of Hover Car Racer would be complete without discussing the story of its publication. Originally, Mathew Reilly published it for free on his website in eight separate installments. He thought a digital release would appeal more to young adults. Eventually the book was sold to Pan MacMillan for the princely sum of…two dollars. Disney snatched up the film right early on, and for a while it looked like we would see a Hover Car Racer movie. Unfortunately, the Hover Car Racer movie was yet another casualty of Tomorrowland’s under-performance making Disney halt production on their science fiction movies. Personally, I think it would make for an awesome video game.

There is an audiobook version narrated by Sean Mangan. Initially I wasn’t quite sure if it would work out, since Sean is American and Jason is Australian. However, I’m happy to report that Sean more than delivers. He really does a great job bringing all of the characters to life. I guess it makes sense that the producers didn’t go with an Australian, given that Jason and his family are pretty much the only Australians in the entire book.

There’s a tone of bonus material related to Hover Car Racer available on Mathew Reilly’s website including maps of all of the race courses, a how to guide to make your own origami Argonaut, interviews and more. There was also a special re-released edition of the novel that includes illustrations by comic book artist Pablo Raimondi.

All in all, Hover Car Racer is a high octane thrill ride powered by Rule of Fun and Rule of Cool. If you’re looking for a science fiction take on racing, this novel can’t be beat. I also recommend it for any reluctant male readers in your life. Pick up your copy today.  

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