The Great Zoo of China – Matthew Reilly

Rating: 4/10

Review: 

The novel starts off with an introduction by the author himself. In this section, Reilly does a superb job of showcasing his utter lack of knowledge about Chinese history, it’s modern influence and it’s cultural significance. And it’s not short either. It’s a chapter long rant.

China wants to rule the world. But without the soft diplomacy of  culture, China will always play second fiddle to the United States.

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Ah yes, the American culture. Let me preface this review by stating that I am not American. I love America. I have been to America around six times and for living around ten thousand miles away, that is no small feat. America does have a culture that in many ways it should be proud of.

But to suggest that China doesn’t have a substantial and/or influential culture of its own is just… hilarious. It is clearly a Western way of looking at China. We place value on commercial items and flashy, in-your-face gimmicks like (to extract examples from Reilly) Coca-Cola, Disney Land and Ford. But culture isn’t just about consumer products and amusement parks.

If Reilly had done one lick of research on what culture is, he’d stumble on these concepts called material and non-material culture. The idea that culture can be within language, food, religion or social norms.

But nah, they don’t have Disney Land so they’re basically uncivilized.

And if you’re uncivilized, you’ll either fall into four main categories: innocent children, a token hero, token villans, or robotic NPC’s (Non-Player Characters, AKA, the person in the back drop of a game or movie who sweeps the floor for ten hours while the heroes are talking).

So, token hero Dr Cassandra Jane Cameron (CJ) has been invited to the unveiling of a new zoo in China. She’s a reptile -or more importantly- an alligator expert and one of the top experts in her field. With her brother, Hamish, she is escorted in a private jet (with blacked out windows) to the top secret park location. Not even her wildest dreams could prepare her for what she is about to discover. For the high tech zoo houses living, breathing dragons.

jurassic-park-first-sighting
Concept art for CJ and Hamish

Yes… dragons! One minute you’re reading the book and then suddenly you turn the page and –

– there’s a dragon!

Even writing the above section made me irritated. But that’s the entire book. Literally every paragraph is a cliff hanger. I would love to do a word search of the book to find out how many times Reilly used the word ‘suddenly.’

It banks on the same anticipation that occurs when a movie character is startled by a hand on the shoulder, only to find out that it was a twig or their friend. It’s a cheap way of mustering up some excitement. Truly, this is to the detriment of the book because the thing about Reilly’s dragons are that they are really, really cool. They are apex predators that are intelligent and as intelligent as you’d hope no creature except humans could be. Instead of showcasing their smarts and stealth, he instead shows off their power. In many instances this is fine but overall, it doesn’t do them justice. Often they seem clumsy and their intelligence seems inconsistent across characters. Physically, however, the dragons are very well done. Reilly has created a hierarchy and tribal system that not only makes sense but is also very imaginative. Throughout the entire novel, I had a very clear mental image of what they looked like and this really assisted with increasing my enjoyment.

One huge flaw with Reilly’s character creation is that when people are ‘bad’ or ‘evil,’ they aren’t fleshed out. A superficial reason is often given to justify their actions, such as greed or vanity. But compared to the hero, the reasonings are weak and make them simply look pathetic. Unfortunately, all of the Chinese characters (excluding Li and the little girl) are evil and so it makes Reilly look as if he’s cast all of China as being barbaric. Personally, my life has never been short of Chinese friends and at times I found this quite demeaning to the wonderful, friendly and generous people I have encountered in my life.

Let’s be clear though, this book was a blockbuster. It is meant to be devoured and then forgotten. CJ could be a character worth writing about again but she will never have the substance that comes with realism. She escapes too many scrapes and knows too much to be a ‘real’ person. Instead, she is the Lara Croft of the book world. She’s the kind of person that jumps from a ledge, two pistols in her hand, a witty comeback emerging from her mouth as she executes a perfect headshot.

dual-usp-match

These people aren’t real but they are fun to read about. When you see Bond escape yet another scrape or Liam Neeson in Taken make yet another perfect shot, you don’t think about the realism, you think about how damn cool that scene was. Sometimes, after you’ve put down a heavy, philosophical book, you don’t want to have another existential crisis. You just want to read some cool stuff and have a laugh. Reilly is under no pretence about the style of novels that he writes. In the Q & A section at the back, he sincerely seems to want to just impart some joy to the reader and that’s a really lovely wish. It’s nice that he just wants us to have fun and forget about the real world for a time. I can’t fault him on that attitude.

That’s what makes his randomly inserted negative comments about the Chinese so weird. It’d be like watching Step Brothers and having them turn to the camera and mention their disdain for Indians. Okay, sure, freedom of speech and all that. But a book, especially one so superficial and devoid of depth, isn’t the place to insert these types of comments. Blog about it but don’t publish it. If anything, you risk alienating a portion of your audience by doing so.

But to clarify, it’s not the worst book in the world. I mean, it’s not great but it certainly isn’t boring. It can be frustrating, cliched and incredibly unrealistic but it’s fun.

And that’s got to count for something.

P.S. blah blah blah *insert rant about similarities to Jurassic Park* blah blah blah.

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