Matthew Reilly’s The Great Zoo of China is easy to explain. Think Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, there are big motherfucking dragons! I’m talking some jumbo jet size dragons. The dragon zoo is built by the burgeoning Chinese economy of today, instead of by a genetics company with billionaire backers.
I debated reviewing this on the blog–I’m not too much of a straight action fan, and this is an action novel. This novel bursts with action, I’m amazed it didn’t explode in my hands. Words are italicized for emphasis. Characters stare dragons (and death) in the eyes countless times, only to MacGyver miraculous saves over and over. There are bombs, there are beasts. Even though this isn’t my normal type of thing, I’ll make an exception. We’re talking dragons. Dragons in a zoo. A zoo gone horribly wrong! Who can resist such a setup?
Herpetologist CJ Cameron travels to China on a job for National Geographic, with photojournalist brother Hamish in tow. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, half of her face is scarred from that time she saved a small boy from the jaws of an angry croc. She joins a small group of journalists and U.S. embassy staff, chosen to visit a new and fabulous Chinese zoo for the first time. Upon their arrival, the zoo is breathtaking, vast, and full of a creature thought to only exist in myth and legend. Sculptures of dragons adorn the zoo’s entrance, and as the group enters the zoo they see gigantic creatures flying through the zoo’s valley.
A presentation quickly takes care of the logic–dragons aren’t mythical, they are just very, very sleepy. Their eggs cuddle, hibernating in groups, and only a groundhog-like-dragon pops its little body out of the nest every now and again to check the weather, and see if it is warm enough for the rest of the hibernating dragon nest of eggs to awaken. This explains single, solitary dragon sightings through history–they were just the weathermen of dragon society! The Chinese stumbled upon a nest of dragon eggs, and figured this all out. The Chinese figured these dragons out, and built this build zoo around them. They’ve got this all under control.
NOT! As you can imagine, this turns into a disaster very easily. Despite a bunch of precautions, these are gigantic, ancient predators and they destroy human precautions with a single flick of their disinterested, gigantic claws. This quickly turns into a novel of mayhem.
Let me just tell you about some of the action Matthew Reilly offers us in this novel, so that you can either laugh at it or run out and pick yourself up a copy of this novel STAT because it sounds like the most incredible thing you’ve heard all week (this may be the most epic spoiler list you’ve ever heard): dragon jousting in which CJ rides a dragon and carries a flamethrower while heading at another dragon full speed, diving from a building before it explodes using a vacuum cleaner’s cord as rope, human/dragon communication (yes, there is translation software), dragons throwing cars like bombs, dragons on firetrucks, dragons setting traps for helicopters, and of course, a few 6.5 ton thermobaric bombs come into play.
That being said, I’m not as offended as others by the similarities to Jurassic Park. People loved Jurassic Park, the author acknowledges in the interview at the end of the book his love of Jurassic Park, and I don’t think he’s claiming to have come up with a totally unique idea here, just something unique enough to give those who loved Jurassic Park something to enjoy. Although it would have been more unique to come at realistic dragons from a different aspect than a zoo, this author really loved Jurassic Park. He went with the zoo, the SUV’s, and all that. It felt to me like he’s paying homage. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit. I try to remember that very little is new. I’m reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World right now, in which prehistoric creatures still live in South America. Michael Crichton named his sequel (to Jurassic Park) The Lost World, and there is some acknowledgement there of influence. All ideas come from somewhere, and to some degree, that has to be okay.
And this idea may be more spectacular on screen than dinosaurs. Because this is, in the end, hard to not imagine as a movie. 3D dragons battling helicopters? Dragon jousts? Sometimes I become concerned that so many popular books read like descriptions of films, but then I remember actions stories have always been popular, and they’ve always been a part of who we are. So laugh at this book from afar due to your intellectual superiority, be riveted in your seat by its incredible visuals and thrills, or just wait a few years to see what will surely be a very cool movie adaptation.