Book Review – The Great Zoo of China

The Great Zoo of ChinaThe Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Warning: Lots of rage-ranting and spoilers ahead.

Once upon a time, there was a book that desperately wanted to cash in on Jurassic World. Somehow this book managed to sneak a look at the script and thought, “Well, if I just change the dinos to dragons, no one will notice!” But the book knew it needed some science to back it up, or it would lose credibility. What with all those reviewers on GR coming down like a ton of bricks on every novel these days, it decided to Google some stuff and again hope that no one would notice. And apparently, the tactic sorta worked. 

Look, when I read a book about dragons in the modern day world and said book isn’t epic/urban fantasy, I go in willing to suspend some disbelief. I fully expect some pseudo-science and unbelievable leaps of faith. I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, expect the world’s own logic to be so shoddy.

The story itself starts with a series of conveniences that had my stomach trying to crawl into a corner. You can tell precisely what is going to happen just from the cliched introduction of the protagonist, CJ.

“They also know you speak Mandarin,’ Grover said. ‘Which is a big plus.’
That had been CJ’s father’s idea. When she and Hamish had been little, their father, a humble insurance salesman with an insatiable curiosity and a penchant for dragging his two children away on unbearable camping trips, had insisted on them taking Mandarin lessons: ‘The future of the world is China, kids,’ he’d said, ‘so you should learn their language.’ It had been good advice.

Of course, Dad. What are the chances I will grow up to be a Mandarin-speaking, wilderness-hiking, National Geographic reptile expert with photographic memory who is invited to a mysterious Chinese dragon project that goes awfully awry? What are the chances that my similarly Mandarin-speaking, wilderness-hiking, hippy younger brother will work as a photographer for Nat Geo and accompany me on said dragon project? No chances at all, none.

But wait, the book says. What do you mean the heroine is OTP? She’s a flawed, realistic person. Look at her face. DUN DUN DUN.
She has scars.

Oh, however could I forget? Those life threatening, debilitating, competence-killing facial scars which destroy the one thing that she truly needed to survive a dragon rampage – potential suitors. Gasp. Flail.
EYEROLL.

Equally predictable is the love interest. I read the exposition where the rest of the cookie cutter cast is introduced and immediately picked the sucker who would angelically fall for her badassery and see past her flaws to the beauty beneath.

Johnson was a younger and more compact version of Syme: about forty, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and sharp dark eyes. He carried himself in an odd way, CJ thought, tensed, hunched, like an athlete who seemed uncomfortable wearing a suit. He did not, she saw, wear cowboy boots like his boss, just regular brogues.

Come on. It was dead obvious. He was the only fit, decent looking, out-of-place loner guy close to CJ’s age. All we had to do was figure out how many pages it would take.

But let’s face it. A good action/thriller book isn’t very dependent on its characters for enjoyment. If the scenes are well written and the premise is executed decently, we won’t care. So I could forgive all of the above nonsense, if it weren’t for the fact that the dragons are all flying dinos-ex-machinae. Reilly establishes a mythology and history for the dragons which are promptly discarded when the plot calls for it.

Take the dragons’ flying abilities for example:

“But given the considerable exertion it takes to stay aloft, dragons can only maintain flight for short distances, a few kilometres at best. They are mainly gliders.”

Fine. They’re huge animals. Gliding makes sense. But then they wouldn’t freaking nest underground, would they? Like soaring birds, they would build nests on high cliffs etc. because it’s easier to launch and glide from there. Not for Reilly’s dragons. They curl up underground like bunnies or something, because apparently they hibernate until the time right, sending out a dragon to test the waters, so to speak. Not that dragons can tolerate salt water, if you’re wondering.

There are so many problems here. First off, the idea that any creature can go into extended hibernation without a food source is shaky, but whatever. Secondly, the book cheerfully states, using a shiny graph, that dragon emergences overlap with ancient civilizations which have a notable dragon mythology. Essentially, every time a dragon poked its nose out to see if the world was worth living in, someone saw it and went, “Whoa, there goes a good story for me mates at the pub.” Precisely what environment do these creatures need that they considered Earth inhabitable for last 7000+ years? Are you telling me the same dragons that have a battle plan for taking out an advanced military-grade facility in the present, took one look at the ancient Egyptians and went, “Ain’t no way I’m messing with that” ?

Further, the Chinese theorize that the dragons survived the asteroid-induced extinction event of their dinosaur cousins (that’s right, they are some sort of raptors on wings) because they hibernated under a nickel deposit 2 km deep. In the same breath, they tell us this:

“In any case, in November 1979, miners in a nickel mine near here broke through to a most unusual underground passageway. It was unusual because it was not natural; it had been dug out of the nickel—which is no mean feat given how hard nickel is—and then refilled with soil that had settled into it over the centuries. We dug out that soil to discover that the tunnel led to a cavern two kilometres underground, a cavern that was filled with eggs, eighty-eight of them to be precise, large leathery eggs that were bigger than any egg ever seen on this planet.”

HOW? How are you saying that the nickel that survived an 180 km wide asteroid crashing into earth can be tunneled by a few dragons? It’s equally infuriating how darn perfect the dragons are. Since they are a fanciful amalgamation of all the best animal predators rather than an extrapolation of existing flying reptiles, they are ridiculously overpowered. There’s nothing they can’t do. Oh wait, they can’t breathe fire. So that’s genuine relief.
Until they can, all of a sudden.

This is how most of the book goes.
Dragons can’t fly for long, until they can.
Dragons can’t attack humans with sonic shields, until they can.
Dragons can’t breathe fire, until they can.
Dragons can’t go near salt water, until they can.
Humans can’t kill the dragons with anything, until they can.
Female crocodiles can’t hatch dragon eggs, until…the Chinese do caesarian operations on them.

The final nail in the coffin was the talking. CJ discovers, waaaaay too late into the story, that with some ermagaherd chip and a database, that we can talk to the dragons using a translating earpiece. The formerly vicious rampaging predators are suddenly transformed into lovable puppies that babble.

Lucky cooed. ‘Lucky no understand White Head.”

A dragon named Lucky. Making cutesy sentences. My head hurts. I don’t know whether to point out the hypocrisy of not naming the other trained dragons or just be glad the author didn’t strain himself to do it.

The action scenes are sort of cinematic but confusing because they change locations a lot and the whole plot is just the protagonist running from pillar to post while idiots die. The flying on a dragon bit could have been a redeeming point but was just ignored in favour of fire trucks and restoring electricity. Sigh.

Yeah, this book isn’t for me.

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