The Great Zoo of China
Author – Matthew Reilly
Published – February 2015 (hardback)
As someone who has worked in publicity and marketing in the past, I find myself immune to most marketing campaigns and marvel at how people can really fall for television adverts. So it speaks highly of Matthew Reilly’s The Great Zoo of China that all it took was seeing a few online adverts for it that made me check out the author, who I’ve never read before, and buy the book in hardback – something I almost never ever do! So the question really becomes, did it live up to the hype, and was it worth the buy?
From Amazon –
It is a secret the Chinese government has been keeping for 40 years. They have found a species of animal no one believed even existed. It will amaze the world.
Now the Chinese are ready to unveil their astonishing discovery within the greatest zoo ever constructed. A small group of VIPs and journalists has been brought to the zoo deep within China to see its 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 they are perfectly safe, and that nothing can go wrong…
GET READY FOR ACTION ON A GIGANTIC SCALE
I wasn’t sure I was going to like this very much as I discovered I’m not a big fan of Reilly’s writing style. There were also a few bits here and there that didn’t quite feel right to me, but overall it was the strength of the story that pushed me from giving it three stars to four.
The story starts with an introduction to CJ Cameron, a previously mauled crocodilian expert who now works as a zoo vet and has been asked to write about China’s amazing new zoo by National Geographic. The story doesn’t waste anytime in getting to the zoo, which is after all what us readers are there, keeping a great pace. We find out more about CJ, her brother Hamish, who will be photographer for her article, and other journalists and VIPs who are to experience the Great Zoo of China first hand. A little too first hand for most of them.
It’s immediately clear what the zoo contains and a good quarter of the book flies by, towards the inevitable. In my review notes I wrote “As soon as they hit the zoo it’s hard to put it down. The inevitable comes suddenly and is gripping”. So far so good but also a little formulaic. Comparisons to Jurassic Park are understandable (though in my opinion comparisons of Reilly to Michael Crichton are very much not!), though slightly unfair as this is not a carbon copy and though it may owe a nod to Jurassic Park it strikes out in it’s own direction early on. If trying to reference it in popular culture it might be more apt to say it is Jurassic Park meets Reign of Fire, though again this wouldn’t quite cover it all.
Gender and Race
Credit to Reilly for making his lead character a woman in an action adventure genre. Although her introduction comes across as one of those hyper-interesting characters, it eventually pans out and she becomes quite a well rounded and likable character that the reader can cheer on. Very early in she becomes the clear leader in the group dynamic despite being “outranked” by some of the men in one way or another which feels like the natural order to things. To a lesser degree most of the supporting characters are nicely fleshed out making it easy for the reader to invest in their plight. It is a shame that of all their group CJ is the only surviving woman – there were one or two that I think would have been interesting to have around longer and see their reactions to the impending doom.
The introduction, though thankfully slight, of a hint of romance irked me. More so because of my personal pet peeve for romance story-lines in non-romance genres most especially when the lead character is a woman. Although not touched on too much, it still had me rolling my eyes on the several occasions that CJ “noticed” the one guy in their group who she kept forgetting was there. I just eye-rolled again thinking about it.
Having worked with Chinese businesses and individuals in the past I was intrigued to see Reilly’s take on them in this situation. Although there are elements that fit with the perception of ruthless Chinese business, there came a point where they all seemed to morph into James Bond villains. The end result is that the majority of Chinese characters come off a little cartoony. But at least the story doesn’t draw a line of Westerners good/Chinese bad as we see some good and bad on both sides as the story progresses.
Strengths versus weaknesses
Undeniably this book is action packed and hard to put down, which personally for me was based on the strength of the story itself. Reilly’s writing style is jarring and has a mixed tone. If not for the abundance of cursing and gore, I might have thought the intended readership to be the Young Adult crowd. But for me what let it down the most was the constant action about to –
I found these split paragraphs, which happened with ridiculous frequency to be jarring rather than nail biting as was possibly the intention.
Some of the story is predictable, the dragon communication is obvious from the get go and is a little jarring for it’s childish quality, asking for a little too much suspension of belief – but again might work well for a YA readership. That said, the ending is strong and spins off in a direction that isn’t quite so predictable -answering the readers question of “how are they going to get out of this” by taking them off on another adventure and back again. The ending certainly makes up for anything earlier that was slightly more predictable.
Overall? Reilly is no Michael Crichton, but he can spin a good yarn.