The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
The comparisons between Matthew Reilly's The Great Zoo of China and Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park are inevitable. But Jurassic Park is smart, well told, and gripping. The Great Zoo of China is...not.
The story is about a American herpetologist, Dr. Cassandra Jane "CJ" Cameron, who is invited to tour a brand new zoo by the Chinese government. CJ is joined by her photographer brother and several other American bigwigs. CJ specialized in the study of large reptiles until one ate half of her face, leaving her permanently disfigured.
As expected, the minute Chinese start showing off the inhabitants of their zoo - dragons! - everything goes kerflooey. Turns out that winged, 9-foot tall carnivores aren't that easy to control, especially when they exhibit uncanny intelligence and cooperation. Oh, plus the ones that are 9 feet are the small end of the scale.
The dialogue is laughable (the NY Times writer is basically there to infodump and mansplain to everyone), the assertions about Chinese global ambition condescending, and the character development nonexistent. (As soon as shit hits the fan CJ - a veterinarian - turns into Rambo - and she's the only one with good ideas or half a brain, eyeroll.)
I might have been able to overlook all of that - after all, I'm not one to read a thriller about a dragon zoo expecting a modern masterpiece - except the writing is so terribly, terribly awful. There are exclamation points and italics everywhere. Not to mention shifts in tense and other clumsy errors. It reads like a story written by someone with the skills and interests of an 8th-grade boy. There are over 20 redundant, badly drawn maps. And I lost count of how many times Reilly wrote "Chinese" as a modifier when it was so unnecessary. We're inside of a super-secret zoo deep in the heart of China. We KNOW all of the workers and soldiers are Chinese.
Finally, my last gripe: the side characters. They are crushed, disemboweled, and torn to pieces without a flicker of empathy. All but two named Chinese characters die horribly, while only two American characters die. There is a little girl introduced just to have a cute kid in peril to tug at our heartstrings. All of the characters are so wooden and dumb that it's impossible to care. I wanted the dragons to win, because they seemed so much more interesting than every human in this book.
Reilly's explanation of how dragons could plausibly exist and have remained unknown to modern science is a fun one, and in the hands of a competent writer the story could have been fantastic. Sure, it's a Jurassic Park ripoff, but I loved Jurassic Park. All I wanted was to read a zippy story about badass dragons eating people who thought they had everything under control. Was that too much to ask?
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