The Great Zoo of China // by Matthew Reilly


//published 2014//

Stephanie read this book quite a while back, and, as my regular followers know, I’m a sucker for dragons so I added it to the TRB without hesitation.  Now in fairness, Stephanie only gave this book 3/5 and did warn that it was heavy on action and light on character development, so it wasn’t a complete surprise, but still!  I honestly think this book would make Bruce Willis raise his eyebrows in disbelief.  It was nonstop chaos from about page 100 on.

China has been keeping a huge secret for decades: they have discovered real dragons and have spent many, many years (and many billions of dollars and, frankly, many lives) to create a tourist attraction that will rocket them to the top of the cultural pile: an interactive zoo filled with live dragons.

The book starts out great as a select group of Americans have been invited to a top-secret sneak peek at a zoo, including our protagonist, CJ, who is a famous herpetologist (a person who studies reptiles), and her brother, Hamish.  CJ is supposed to be writing an article for National Geographic, and she’s brought her brother as a photographer.  They have no idea what to expect, and the dragons are a huge shock.  The Chinese have developed intricate and involved ways of protecting their visitors from the dragons.  The first hundred pages are spent explaining how the dragons came to be, how they are prevented from attacking people, how the different types of dragons interact, etc.  It’s all quite interesting, but even Hamish points out that anyone who has seen Jurassic Park has an idea how these types of projects usually end.

And guess what?  Things go… badly.  The dragons have figured out how to circumvent the protective systems and are able to start attacking the humans – and then all hell breaks loose.

Okay, so pros:  the concept was great.  Despite the many similarities to Jurassic Park, Reilly had enough new ideas to prevent it from feeling like a total ripoff.  Some of the twists were excellent.  The explanations for the dragons and the whole zoo were really great, although I was a bit confused with things like, “Curiosity in an animal was a sign of intelligence and it was rare.  You found it only in a few members of the animal kingdom: chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins.”  ?? Maybe I define “curiosity” differently, but my dog is definitely curious, and I have an entire flock of chickens who are basically the nosiest creatures on earth – if I’m outside, they are all up in my business, trying to find out what I’m doing.  I spent several days painting fence on a farm once, and had to endure the cows standing about giving me advice the entire time.  Even wild animals, like foxes, I’ve seen take time to examine something they don’t recognize or understand.  Isn’t that what curiosity is???  But still.

The cons?  The book just didn’t quite deliver.  Reilly instead decided to make the whole book nothing but a huge mess of running about, being eaten by dragons, dodging dragons, almost getting killed by the Chinese, Jeeps careening off cliffs and waterfalls, attacks from giant alligators, helicopter wrecks – it just didn’t let up, and after a while it got rather boring.  It was extra frustrating because I actually felt like this could have been a really, really good book if Reilly had spent just a smidge more time on character development and a little less on flaming trash trucks and narrow escapes.

I mean, seriously.  I’m supposed to believe sentences like, “They had been running for about ten minutes when…”  ????  Oh, after a nice exhausting day running from dragons, I just trot about at a run, effortlessly.  Totally.  I also liked the part where the crocodile grabbed CJ and started to drown her, except she escapes, and then we just never talk about her arm again.  Apparently the croc just held it very, very gently.  And then there’s where they just run up several flights of stairs – “After about eight minutes of hurried climbing…”  ????  Eight straight minutes of running up stairs?  And they’re alive!?  And that’s just on page 253!  They still have 200 pages of intense physical exertion ahead!

The other thing about this book that drove me absolutely crazy was the actual formatting Reilly used.  He would start a paragraph…

Then another…

As though he was being really dramatic…

Except it was super annoying.

He would also insert random italics to emphasize entire phrases right in the middle of his narrative:  “She skipped up on a chair and with Johnson beside her, leapt up onto the control console and out the shattered window, past the dragon and onto the roof of the upturned cable car.”

What.  Even.  I’m not a child.  I can figure out which words in the sentence are important without them getting surrounded by flashing lights.  A few times is weird but alright, but the more the action ratcheted up, the more italics appeared and it got super old super fast.

In the end, I guess I’m going with 3/5 as well, although it is honestly almost a 2/5.  There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed, and the bones of the story were solid.  Even though I’ve made fun of it a lot, I actually did enjoy reading the book for the most part, even if some of it made my eyes roll almost out of my head.  If Reilly had actually worked on developing a plot and some characters, this would have been an awesome book.  Instead, I just had hundreds of pages of CJ pulling stunts that made DieHard look like it was performed by kindergartners.