The Great Zoo Of China
By Matthew Reilly
2015, Orion hb, 529pp
Some books are on my shelves for years before I get round to reading them, while some that I particularly want to read soon might still take six months or a year to actually get to. I saw a full page advert in a magazine for newly-released THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA, did a little online poking around, and ordered it from my local library, along with Stephen King’s MR. MERCEDES, and after a couple of weeks, they both arrived on the same day. I read the King book first, but a day after finishing got note from the library that THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA had to go back [as with most new books, there’s a waiting list; usually, you can keep books, with nine renewals, for twenty-seven weeks, enough for even the slowest reader]. So, I was faced with a pretty huge doorstop of a book, and the problem of could I get it read in little over a week. Well, clearly I could, because with big-ish print, lots of white space in chapter breakups and a handful of maps and diagrams, this huge book only runs to [I estimate] around 100,000 words. Also, it reads like gangbusters.
The plot; well, essentially, and in a movie-pitch sort of style, it’s Jurassic Park with dragons instead of dinosaurs, set in the jungles of China. Or, if you’d care for another handle, it’s a Jane MaClaine Die Hard With Dragons. Forty years ago the Chinese government discovered that dragons were real and were nested beneath the surface of the earth. Keeping this massive secret from the world, they have carried out a research program into the creatures, placing them in captivity and bringing in some of the worlds experts to oversee their project. Eventually, in a bid to own the most awesome visitor-attraction in the world, they have spent trillions of moolah to build a massive and ultra high-tech safari-type zoo environment in a jungled valley of Southern China. Herpetologist CJ Campbell, and her brother Hamish, are two of the experts helicoptered in to be given a pre-opening tour of the place, boat-rides, cable-cars, maglev trains, revolving mountaintop restaurants, the works. But captive dragons aren’t keen on remaining captive, so before long [about 20% in] everything goes belly-up, the dragons go nuts, and a long, long, 400 page action sequence begins.
This is a strange novel. It’s a pretty good concept, and author Reilly has a fair-enough kind of explanation for the dragons and their long history, and he adequately describes the enormous environment in which they are held. Also, his action sequences are truly massive, truly vast in scope, and, most of the latter 400 pages has truly enormous dragons going completely batshit, destroying everything around them, picking up petrol tankers and launching them from the air like bombs, or snatching helicopters from the skies, to smashing up buildings of reinforced concrete. There’s non-stop carnage and death and destruction here; head-biting, neck-snapping, gut-flying, car-boat-dragon chases, explosions, fire, machine guns, last-second escapes, completely awesome but all completely over-the-top action; Peter Jackson would get tired, Michael Bay would have a migraine!! CJ Cameron, the female herpetologist somehow becomes Lara Croft or Jane Bond, surging from one reptilian assault to another, surviving by the skin of her teeth to the point of complete and total unbelievability. I think this book is the most action-heavy book I’ve ever read in my life. Sometimes it gets too much, too repetitive, and too samey-samey that, despite drawings of maps and detailed explanations, I still wasn’t always exactly sure where our heroes were running to or which part of the Dragon Zoo was exploding. You just sort of get the gist, the important action, while the pertinent details often happen as a fuzzy bang. There were times when I was bored of dragons throwing helicopters about the place, and times when I was considering leaving the rest of it unread and going for a lie down. But, to be fair, there were also action sequences that were engaging and reasonably exciting and kept the pages flying by; sometimes, when you get the point that it’s completely over-the-top and pretty paper-thin, you can’t help getting carried away with it, and I was laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of the next giant action extravaganza. Phew!
But, to be equally fair, the action, is pretty much all there is. The rest of the book is as empty as Jurassic Park’s gift-shop. There is very little depth to anything, the characters are largely stereotypes with cardboard-cutout development, and the writing style leaves little for contemplation; it’s a fast and lean, James Patterson kind of style, all fire and fists, but no space for much flair in the writing. The book screams Movie Deal! and the action is all very visual, but to be honest, if this was made into a Hollywood blockbuster it would cost as much to make as building an actual dragon zoo yourself, and more-to-the-point, any successful script would need extra work to muscle in a bit of character development, unless it were to become a Transformers-like mess.
I kind of enjoyed THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA to some extent. There were some visuals I’ll remember for a while, and I’ll recall the whole awesome ridiculousness of it, and it was very fast-paced and easy read. But if, as a reader, you enjoy a bit more originality, and a bit more depth or substance to your books, it’s probably not for you. Tonnes of dragons, though.