The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly (2014)

GreatZooChinaCover blurb

In the blockbuster and bestselling tradition of Jurassic Park comes the breakneck new adventure from the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author Matthew Reilly whose imaginative, cinematic thrillers “make you feel like a kid again; [they’re] a blast” (Booklist).

It is a secret the Chinese government has been keeping for forty years. They have proven the existence of dragons—a landmark discovery no one could ever believe is real, and a scientific revelation that will amaze the world. Now the Chinese are ready to unveil their astonishing findings within the greatest zoo ever constructed.

A small group of VIPs and journalists has been brought to the zoo deep within China to see these fabulous creatures for the first time. Among them is Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron, a writer for National Geographic and an expert on reptiles. The visitors are assured by their Chinese hosts that they will be struck with wonder at these beasts, that the dragons are perfectly safe, and that nothing can go wrong.

Of course it can’t…

My thoughts

I debated whether I should review The Great Zoo of China on this blog. Of all the titles here, it comes closest to violating my policy of only focusing on fiction about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. The monsters of the novel are dragons, although ones supposedly rooted in science (more on that in a bit). I decided to go ahead and review the book for two reasons. First, it is now out in bookstores, and it is nice for a change to review a current title instead of one that is decades old. Second, after reading it, I felt guilty that I may have directed readers to this literary horror through a recent news item. While not the worst book I’ve reviewed on Prehistoric Pulp, it comes damn close.

The Great Zoo of China is Jurassic Park, except the setting has shifted to China and the dinosaurs are replaced by dragons. The Chinese are ready to open a secret zoo they have spent years building, so to announce it to the world, they fly in several journalists and some U.S. dignitaries. Among them is CJ Cameron, a herpetologist who walked away from her profession after an alligator attack left one side of her face horribly scarred. She is accompanied by her brother Hamish, a photojournalist/former Marine/party dude. Needless to say, the visitors are shocked to find that instead of pandas and tigers, the enormous zoo houses dragons. There are no cages or fences. The Chinese instead rely on sonic technology to keep the dragons from eating guests. Of course, the dragons find a way around the safeguards, but they turn out much less of a threat than the Chinese government, which doesn’t want the story of the zoo’s failure leaking to the outside world.

In Q&A at the end of the book, Reilly says Jurassic Park is the novel that inspired him to become a writer. The Great Zoo of China is something of a homage to Michael Crichton’s famous work. Crichton was never a good writer, but he was a good storyteller. Reilly is neither. He shows no skill for building suspense or delivering logical, exciting action. Remember the famous scene in Jurassic Park where the T. rex attacks the visitors in the Jeeps?  Part of what made that scene so great in both the book and the movie was the way it built up tension before the attack, putting the audience on edge before the T. rex shows up. There is a similar scene in The Great Zoo of China involving a cable car, except when the attack comes, it comes with no warning or hint that something bad is about to go down. Reilly is in such a rush to get to the action that he glossed over the most crucial part of good storytelling: Setting tone.

Sadly, Reilly is no better at delivering action. Most of the narrative is delivered in short, one-sentence paragraphs with a liberal use of exclamation marks. The writing jumps around so much it is hard to follow, with certain characters disappearing and only re-appearing when they’re needed in the plot. And the action is so absurd and over-the-top I began to wonder if The Great Zoo of China was set in an alternate universe with a different set of physics than our own. In one scene, the heroine dispatches two Chinese soldiers with a makeshift flamethrower created using a small can of hairspray and a lighter. The fire causes the grenades the soldiers are carrying to instantly explode, which somehow manages not to hurt the heroine even though she is close enough to set them alight using hairspray (It must have contained napalm as an ingredient, given its effect). The book is filled with such ridiculousness – I lost count of the number of times I rolled my eyes while reading.

Now let’s talk dragons, which are the main reason most people will pick up this book. Reilly alleges his dragons are grounded in science, but that is about as true a statement as if J.K. Rowling claimed the magic in Harry Potter was grounded in quantum mechanics. The Chinese tell their visitors that dragons are actually dinosaurs that survived the mass extinction 65 million years ago. However, the heroine quickly deduces this is a half-truth to sell the idea of living dragons to a scientifically illiterate public. Dragons are actually a type of archosaur, a group of reptiles that include dinosaurs, although Reilly claims the designation is used to explain away any animals whose origins are uncertain. (Paleontologists may take issue with that.) Dragons lived and evolved alongside the dinosaurs but survived the extinction thanks to eggs that can hibernate for millions of years. Okay…

The scientific problems keep mounting. Reilly never says why his dragons have six limbs – two wings and four legs – when all vertebrae life on Earth is based on a four-limb body plan. (Even the silly 2004 British psuedo-documentary The Last Dragon – A Fantasy Made Real, which explored dragon evolution, provided an explanation for six limbs.) He throws in some hand waiving about hollow bones to explain why dragons can fly, even through the largest reach 200 feet in length and weigh several tons. And, in what is perhaps his worst sin, Reilly populates his zoo with different species of dragons, but the only difference between them is their skin colors. A more imaginative writer would have dreamed up different varieties of dragons to fill different ecological niches. Hell, the color-coded dragons of Dungeons & Dragons show more evolutionary adaptation than the ones in Reilly’s book.

This review is among the longest I have written for this site, primarily because I can’t recall the last time I’ve been so disappointed in a book. Jurassic Park remains one of my most-beloved novels, and while I didn’t expect The Great Zoo of China to reach the same classic status, I did expect a small measure of literary competence. Here is a mainstream novel containing the worst traits of badly written fan fiction. Just how bad? I’m not a supporter of book burnings, but reading The Great Zoo of China is closest I’ve come to reconsidering that position.

Trivia

  • Matthew Reilly is an Australian author who has penned several thrillers. His website is matthewreilly.com.

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