You’ve heard the expression “Made for TV movie”? Matthew Reilly’s The Great Zoo of China is a made for movie book. I don’t mean this as an insult. I mean that as I read The Great Zoo, I could see the plot playing out perfectly on a big screen.
CJ Cameron is a herpetologist who specializes in crocodilians, especially the saltwater crocodile of Australia. In fact, it was a saltwater croc that scarred her face years before. As the novel begins, CJ and her brother Hamish, a photographer for National Geographic, are offered a mysterious job somewhere in China. The hints from the prologue hint strongly that this mysterious job is also extremely dangerous. There’s a risk of being eaten alive by something. CJ and Hamish sign on for the job, in spite of the lack of details. They are quickly flown, along with a US ambassador, his aide, and two journalists, deep into the Chinese interior. Their Chinese guides are tight-lipped, not wanting to spoil the surprise as CJ et al. arrive at the magnificent zoo. As their train pulls into the zoo’s special station, they finally see what’s in the zoo: dragons.
At this point, you might be tempted to compare The Great Zoo of China to Jurassic Park. You wouldn’t be wrong. CJ’s guides explain that 40 years ago, a cache of dinosaur eggs was discovered under a nickel deposit in China. The eggs contained creatures that we would describe as dragons. The dinosaurs, classified as archosaurs, have four limbs and two wings. They can grow to fantastic sizes and eat prodigiously. Somehow, they’ve been kept secret for 40 years. Now, China is ready to go public with their great dragon zoo. They’re inviting dignitaries, journalists, and scientists to start their marketing campaign.
Of course, it all goes wrong.
In a nod to Jurassic Park, things start to go wrong while CJ and her group are on their first tour of the zoo. For the rest of the book’s 515 pages, CJ, Hamish, and the rest of the parks visitors and workers and directors run back and forth across the zoo trying not to be eaten and escape the supposedly secure facility. The dragons in The Great Zoo are terrifyingly intelligent. CJ likens them to saltwater crocodiles early in the book, pointing out the large reptiles ability to plan for days before they strike. The dragons have found a way around one of the zoo’s main security features—something that was supposed to be impossible. But time and again, the dragons outsmart the humans. Imagine velociraptors with wings and you’ll be nearly there.
There are a few stylistic problems with The Great Zoo of China. Paragraphs are extremely short, often just a sentence, and not in a poetic way. Towards the end, the dialog devolves into clichés and potential catch phrases. Almost every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. This book really is made to be a movie. If you can put up with these flaws, The Great Zoo of China is a gripping science fiction thriller.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 27 January 2015.