Explosions, crumbling buildings, giant crocodiles, homemade flamethrowers, collapsing bridges, grenades, machine guns, a little science and a lot of fantasy, and best of all a wonderful hierarchy of flying, violent, super intelligent and fire breathing dragons – all collide in the fast paced bloody gory and wonderfully thrilling adventure that is Matthew Reilly’s The Great Zoo of China.
Reading this was a departure for me. Anyone who knows my reviews knows that I typically read things from an different set of genres. Although one could argue that this isn’t too different because of the sci-fi nature of much of this book. However, to me, this felt more action/adventure than anything and that isn’t my typical afternoon. But like many books that I read, the cover pulled me in and drew me to this book. And I am so glad it did. I think I have found an author whose books I need to read more of.
This was definitely the kind of book, that if it was made into a movie, would be an action adventure. I am sure there are many who have compared this book to Jurassic Park. Not having read the book but only having seen the movie I can see the similarities. I don’t think it’s giving much away to note that the animals in the Great Zoo are dragons (see a careful look at the cover gives that away really). While dragons are not dinosaurs, there was just enough science lingo to think that they could be related – and given the main premise of the story it’s easy to see parallels between Jurassic Park and this book. However, while I didn’t love Jurassic Park the movie, I did love this book.
We have a prologue that sets the stage so that we are expecting blood and guts to be spilled from the start. Some might argue that the book is off to a slow start because we don’t see any of the blood and guts for a little while. However, I found it to be the perfect pace as I was given just enough science in the beginning to help me understand where this story was going to head (and gave me just enough mystery to what to see what was going to happen next) while letting me suspend reality and believe for a brief moment that the premise of there being a zoo filled with dragons hidden somewhere in China could be ever such a small possibility. The fact that I was given so much of this set-up information before all hell broke loose was perfect pacing. I thought it was a great way to explain some of the key facts necessary to move the book forward in the manner in which it moved. The quotes setting up each part of the story, the maps and other pictures that came along too, all helped with the pacing and set expectations in a way that helped make things feel more possible. The protagonist CJ drove the story and her knowledge of science made her actions (in most cases) seem very realistic or at least completely in line with the character and world that have been built in the first few chapters.
In the meantime, a little bit about the plot of this book. Setting the background and primary motivation as the Chinese desire to overtake the US in terms of world domination – cultural world domination that is – and the fictional application of the real politics facing the world today was a clever way to ground the plot in some semblance of reality. Conspiracy theorists won’t find it hard to believe that a government could hide something so big. Those, like me who aren’t, well it is a work of fiction…. Seeing the dragons be super intelligent and drawing a parallel to crocodiles was smart – it explained CJ’s presence and helped me find a way to try to buy into the possibility seen here. Watching the dragons revolt, well, it seems to me that a common thread in a number of the books I have read recently is that animals (humans or dragons) don’t like to be prisoners and they will do all they can to escape what ever (type) of prison they are in. But I was going to talk plot…
… CJ is an animal expert, crocodile expert specifically. She, her brother (taking photos for her and National Geographic who they are there on behalf of) and a few other well respected journalists and the American Ambassador to China (and his aid who turns out to be ex-CIA) are headed to China to see something big. They are secreted off to a place in China where they are told they are going to see a new great zoo. Upon arrival, they learn that China has been working for over 40 years on this project and the animals they are there to see are in fact Dragons. CJ is astute and observant. And she knows that animals like these are not going to be easy to control and she asks, almost from the beginning, about the number of lives lost. The Chinese lie in response and say none. The stage is set so that when the dragons do revolt and we begin to see them at their horrible, vicious, cruel, bloody and violent best we know there is more going on then them just wanting to get back at the humans. CJ kicks butt and takes names. And her brother is pretty awesome too.
The descriptions are perfect. I was reading and felt like I was witnessing things first hand. I could feel the terror and panic. It was peppered with the exact right amount of profanity to make things feel even more real. Let’s face it, if I were being stared down by a huge, hungry, angry dragon I doubt “Oh shoot” would be my observation. It also had just enough humor to keep the violence from feeling overwhelming. Having CJ nickname the dragons the way she did was often funny and made it feel more real. He personality shined in those moments. The overall plot, once we learn what the dragons are really up to was a nice little twist. There were a number of small turns that kept me on my toes and made me see the differences between Jurassic Park (again, the movie) and the plot to this book. I could totally picture the dragons. Some were cute (like Lucky) and some were downright frightening (like melted face). And to me – that was of the utmost importance. I could picture the size differences, and see them standing on stage or flying through the air as I read the words describing those situations. And, I fell a little in love with Lucky. And that was important because it made the dragons so much more than dragons – it made them feel like people. I don’t care what people think about anthropomorphism generally, I love it in books. And here, it didn’t feel like an interpretation and assignment of human characteristics but more like the natural understanding of the dragons’ characteristics.
The treatment of dragons here was actually a nice change of pace. They aren’t mystical beings working with riders, they aren’t the subject of some strange magical prophecy, they aren’t handled by folks with wands (I love Harry Potter so this isn’t a criticism just an observation noted for classification purposes), they aren’t guarding treasure, and they aren’t really shape-shifters who have watched over humans for centuries. Instead, they are scaly, leathery, tough-skinned, large toothed predators who are the top of the food chain and really don’t enjoy being chained up or treated with electroshock treatments during “training”. They are dangerous animals. Takes the fantasy and myth away and makes it more “real”. It takes the idea of a book about dragons and makes it for more than the comic-book-loving-sci-fi-and-myth-loving-Tolkein-is-a god-GoT-worshiper-geeks out there (like me); it makes them something my Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy loving dad might enjoy reading.
Where I thought this book needed a little more was with a few of the characters, especially the ex-CIA spook. There was a lot of potential there that I felt was wasted. I know that CJ is the driver here and we see things from her POV, but there were a number of peripheral characters that felt like they should have been more important or that the author felt they were more important, but I felt like they were superfluous. The little Chinese girl for example. She didn’t add much of anything – no key plot point, no real action sequence, if she disappeared from the pages of the book it really wouldn’t have mattered. So I felt myself wondering, was she edited down to such an extraneous role or was she a throw-away from the beginning? There were others who fell into that same category and it felt as those words were wasted.
Overall, I thought The Great Zoo of China was a great read. I really would love to see a sequel to this book – there was a foundation built where we could see dragons again in the US at some point. I could see CJ coming back to warn the Americans not to make the same mistakes the Chinese did… but who knows if that will ever be something that crosses the authors mind. (Sorry for the spoiler about her surviving, but it would be hard to stomach her being the main protagonist, kicking the butt that she does, and then killing her, so I don’t think that is giving away too much either). I guess I can only hope – for more dragons!