Picking this one up on a punt, and vaguely recalling Jurassic Park back in the 90s, I wasn’t unimpressed by my first foray into Matthew Reilly’s work. The Great Zoo of China was an enjoyable rocket-sled ride that, tellingly, I finished in about three days.
I’ve decided these days to be less ponderous about the books I buy and read, and just read the ones I think are going to be enjoyable. The Great Zoo of China begins in classic action-movie terms, introducing the flashy setting and the characters before plunging them quickly into the main meat of the book.
The premise of The Great Zoo of China is that the modern nation of China has embarked upon a project of goliath proportions – the titular Great Zoo – that aims to restore the nation’s pride and score a massive boost to Chinese cultural achievements. The book makes what I feel is an astute commentary on modern Chinese culture and industry – China is famous for making the everyone else’s products and poses the question: what is China’s Coca-Cola? Is China just the workshop for America’s great corporations? This imbalance is summed up in one borrowed quote that is the mainstay on the rear of every iPhone: “Designed in California. Made in China”. Returning to the point, I did buy into why the Chinese government would desire a cultural icon of its own design, and not just making, but modern China is also the only country feasible today that could construct a project such as the aforementioned Zoo, and on the gargantuan scale required.
Naturally with a “Great Zoo of China” being built essentially for bragging rights about Chinese culture, and the immense secrecy around the project, and the sticker on the cover selling the book as “Jurassic Park with dragons”… it came as no surprise to find that the Zoo was stocked with genetically engineered dragons. I was not unimpressed with the rationalisation that the lone dragons that pepper history were in fact real dragons scouting the surface of the world at periods where the temperature was at its highest. The suspension of disbelief required for this story to hold water was by no means insurmountable. Even the science used to contain the dragons – electromagnetic emitters linked to neural implants that train the dragons to steer clear of the zoo limits, but also to hate their captors – is not unimaginable in 2016.
The cast of characters in The Great Zoo of China revolves around the party of Chinese experts and government officials that are showing off their new project and the selected members of the American press that are their guests. The focus is on protagonist Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron and her brother Hamish; CJ being the requisite reptilian expert who decodes the behaviour of the inhabitants of the zoo. The rest of the party seem more ancillary; the US ambassador, the director of the Zoo and a CIA agent are there seemingly because they’re expected to be there – the main characterisation is focused on CJ, who is confident and knowledgeable (and a bit of a gung-ho Lara Croft when the need arises) whereas her brother is a laid-back and casual dimwit with a heart of gold. In an interesting commentary on the militaristic nature of China’s society, the main adversary is not the Zoo’s Director but the Chinese military, led by the brutal and cold General Bao, whose zealous desire to protect China’s reputation from the disaster that befalls the Zoo leads to several atrocities that punctuate how important the Zoo is to Chinese national prestige and how it must be protected, despite the body count.
Interestingly there is some attempt to characterise some of the dragons and add some personality to them. However, I did find the dragon characterisation considerably more simplified, despite their purported intelligence, so I found myself caring less for individual named dragons. Ultimately, a dragon is a dragon, though the classifications and tribal nature of the different types of dragon did help differentiate them.
Structurally, The Great Zoo of China was pretty formulaic; though I hasten to add that being formulaic is not necessarily a negative. I’d say it was enjoyably so – we’re quickly introduced to the Zoo, the science, the dragons, the technology… that inevitably goes awry, leading onto a pretty action-packed and exhilarating adventure around escaping the Zoo and the Chinese military forces who are adamant on covering the whole catastrophe up. It certainly plays right into the mould of action movie-esque prose; Reilly has crafted some unchallenging but also evocative prose and the story blisters along. There’s a few moments where the story, rightly, catches it’s breath for a moment and there’s also a moment where the homogenous group of American survivors splits up with CJ and Hamish taking charge of each group. This works as it allows the narrative to split between the two groups as they take different paths, which is refreshing and allows a bit more exploration of the setting. Ultimately, the book is a bit of a flash in the pan but I’d stress that this isn’t necessarily bad; it’s an easy, refreshing read that does little to challenge the reader but it’s certainly an enjoyable action rollercoaster. Sure it feels a bit derivative and the narrative does seem predictable, but is that such a bad thing? I certainly enjoyed the ride through the world that Matthew Reilly creates here.
Again, I feel some of the ancillary characters are treated as such, and feel a little disposable, but the deaths are pretty gruesome and don’t pull any punches, reflecting the visceral nature of the threat of the dragons. It’s refreshing, too, that Reilly decides his dragons will not be the archetypal majestic creatures but much more reptilian and certainly less graceful than the myth of dragons would have one imagine. The realist tack taken, especially given the genetically-engineered nature of the creatures, is well done. But, like all summer blockbusters, some of the escapes, near-misses and such are little too convenient and stretch the plausibility a little. While there’s plenty of room to flesh out some of the characters and their motivations and backstories, there’s enough, especially with CJ and Hamish, to hook me and drive me to see the story through.
I did have a few niggles. The prose was a bit trite in places, and one thing I found annoying was the quite heavy use (in the beginning especially) of overt brand names. A character checks his email on his Samsung phone. Another takes photographs with his Canon EOS 5D DLSR camera. Another swaps his AK-47 for his Heckler and Koch MP-7 assault rifle with M40 grenade launcher. What purposes does being so specific serve? What material difference does the brand of smartphone have on the narrative? I felt, despite the inference of the author’s enthusiasm, it got in the way, especially at crucial early parts of the book where my attention shouldn’t be diverted by needless detail. Unless the Samsung Galaxy had a magic, dragon-repelling speaker as standard, just use a generic term like “smartphone”. Fawning over these details that added nothing to the story did slow down the relentless pace that was otherwise gutsy and full of momentum.
The book also features representations and maps of the area, and depictions of some of the displays and whiteboards that held pertinent information referred to in the prose. I felt these were, also, impeding of the plot ultimately, and I rarely spent more than a couple of seconds looking at each. In black-and-white, the fidelity wasn’t enough that they added anything more to the descriptions in the text and. If I were to be honest, I did feel a little let down that the text appeared to be vague enough to need these illustrations; if the author couldn’t describe what they wanted well enough to require an illustration, then it’s a bad sign. However, I did feel that once I read the corresponding section I gained enough to piece it together; either way, the various illustrations and maps just seemed extraneous.
Overall, though, I enjoyed this book and I appreciate that the comparisons to Jurassic Park were inevitable. And maybe it wasn’t a heavyweight or literary outing but it was enjoyable while it lasted. There’s a core message behind it – of China’s place in the world and the pursuit of national pride at all costs – that does resonate and I appreciate the exploration of. So, The Great Zoo of China was, for me, a pretty relentless, engaging and thrilling adventure with an intriguing concept behind it and, after taking a punt on it, I’ll definitely check out some more of Matthew Reilly’s work in the future!
Buy The Great Zoo of China on Amazon UK