CJ Cameron, a journalist with expertise in reptiles, and her photographer brother Hamish are transported to China in great secrecy to witness the unveiling of a new zoo, the like of which has never been seen before, that will, the Chinese authorities proclaim, boost the nation’s morale through the roof. CJ, Hamish and a small group of journalists and reporters, including those beloved by American TV cameras, are met on their arrival by their hosts, senior Chinese politicans, and so begins a tour unlike any other. The enclosures are vast, encompassing mountains, swamps, meadows, caves and rivers. A new world has been built in order to encage the old. For within can be found the stuff of legend. Within there be dragons.
The dragons are not a secret to the prospective reader – the cover makes their presence clear – but what is even more obvious to the reader is that this is not a tour unlike any that has gone before, nor is this a zoo that will shock the reader with its novelty. The Great Zoo of China is, to all intents and purposes, Jurassic Park with Dragons. At the back is an interview with Matthew Reilly in which the author declares that Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is his favourite novel of all time, his inspiration for becoming a writer, and so, while paying tribute to this novel, he describes how he set out to make The Great Zoo of China as different as possible. The main difference, except for the nature of the beasties, is the Chinese location and the move from capitalist venture to political gamble. In other words, not that different at all. Matters aren’t helped by the creators of the Chinese zoo telling their skeptical guests that of course they’ve seen Jurassic Park and nothing like that could ever go wrong here. The reader, who has also seen and/or read Jurassic Park, knows differently.
But while Matthew Reilly has not succeeded in writing an original novel, he has done much better in creating a tour de force thriller that I found nigh on impossible to put down. Reilly is a great thriller writer and when he does it well, as with Ice Station and Contest, I think he’s unbeatable. And in The Great Zoo of China Reilly brings all his talents to bear, which is good news indeed after Reilly’s previous novel, which ventured into new territory entirely with the 16th-century historical thriller The Tournament.
CJ is one of Reilly’s most appealing central figures, with a well-developed backhistory and the scars to prove it, and with more than enough ingenuity, courage and wit to prove a match for almost any monster, whether dragon or human. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her. As for the dragons – Reilly spends a great deal of time developing different species of dragons with their distinct behaviours and preferences for different environments. This is a spectacularly visual novel. While it is very difficult to disassociate some of the dragons from Crichton’s velociraptors, they are vividly drawn and can be both menacing and curiously engaging. As the novel proceeds and we learn more and more about the dragons and their behaviour, the sense of peril increases enormously. As a result, I was reading this into the small hours.
I do have one problem with the book, in addition to the Jurassic Park issue, and that is with Reilly’s treatment of the Chinese. It is hardly flattering and at times verges on the offensive. There are moments when it’s difficult to tell who cares less for human life – dragons or the Chinese Communist Party.
The Great Zoo of China is not original but it is a very exciting book. It is also violent and bloody. The pages race past as drama upon drama strive to be more thrilling than the one that went before. When all’s said and done, this is a book that Reilly obviously had a whale of a time writing and that enthusiasm shows. I would have preferred him to have turned his attention to something more original, along the lines of Contest, or even returning to his great hero Scarecrow, but I nevertheless loved every page of The Great Zoo of China. It’s undemanding, great fun to read, thrilling, exciting, gory and did I say thrilling?