Book Review: “The Great Zoo of China” by Matthew Reilly (@Matthew_Reilly)

 

GreatZooChina

Back in 2014, I read and reviewed Australian author Matthew Reilly’s The Tournament (2014). In that post I said I would like to read his The Great Zoo of China in 2015. Now, in February 2016, I finally got to read the book.

I finished this highly entertaining novel in one day, all 530 pages of it (hardback edition). Initially I was determined to read it with a critical eye, as Chinese dragon myths are considerably different from those of Western dragons. I was also keen to examine how Reilly depicts contemporary China.

I am glad to report here that Chinese dragons are never a problem. As for Reilly’s observation on contemporary China, he has obviously researched and learned to focus on a crucial point: China has all the money and manpower it needs to build anything it wants in order to become a superpower. All it lacks is INNOVATION.

This is an excellent point that is well illustrated throughout the novel. However, what defeats the Chinese in this story is their willingness to sacrifice anything and everything in order to win – a point that is very subtly handled. Still, although The Great Zoo of China promotes universal values such as harmony between Man and Nature – just like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990) that is Reilly’s “favourite novel of all time” – it is unlikely that the Chinese Government will approve Reilly’s depiction of China. (Which is a pity, for Chinese readers would really like his books. As of the writing of this review, only one of Reilly’s books, Seven Deadly Wonders [2007], has been introduced to the Chinese World. It was published in Simplified Chinese by China’s New Star Press in 2007 under the curious title “Egyptian Historian”.)

Indeed, The Great Zoo of China is Reilly’s personal take on Crichton’s Jurassic park. There are enough differences between the two books to demonstrate Reilly’s capacity to create an action-packed, fast-paced and highly convincing techno thriller. However, I would like to see more emotions – the personal beliefs, desires and intentions of all the major characters – throughout their decision-making process. Indeed, it is a pity that most of the characters in this novel are rather flat, especially the Chinese.

What we commonly refer to as human instincts are in fact supplemented by acquired knowledge and highly polished skills. Another equally fundamental factor is emotions, which are based on the individual and collective experiences we absorb through time. What Reilly fails to illustrate in this novel (and some of his other action adventures) is “why” his characters think and act the way they do. More often than not in contemporary writings, we see confident and fluent descriptions of “what” and “how” and excellent use of “where” and “when”. But it is the ability to explain “why” – the deeply hidden, constantly churning human emotions – that cuts a great writer.

Two other issues are worthy of mention here. The first is POV, i.e. how the story is told. Halfway through the story in The Great Zoo of China, the protagonist CJ Cameron is separated from her brother Hamish. As they struggle to solve the problems at hand on opposite ends of the “megavalley” that is the zoo, it is only natural that the story is told from alternate perspectives, and with great and exciting results, too. However, until we reach this point, the story is told from CJ’s point of view. This makes the two and only two attempts to probe into the minds of other characters extremely awkward.

More importantly, in an author interview at the end of the book, Reilly gives four reasons why he makes the lead character of The Great Zoo of China a woman:

  1. “I hadn’t done it before. That’s a big plus. As an author, you’ve got to keep doing new things.” (Note: This is indeed the first time an adult female lead is created in Reilly’s stories, as Queen Elizabeth in The Tournament is only 13 years old.)
  2. “Women view the world differently to men, and I like the idea of seeing the details of the zoo through a smart woman’s eyes.”
  3. “I felt that a trained dragon like Lucky would relate better to a female handler than a male one. The fact that CJ is a woman enhances Lucky’s character.”
  4. “I also knew that the Chinese Communist Party is a very male-dominated organisation. I felt having CJ as a lone woman among this group of men would create an interesting dynamic.”

These are all very good reasons. However, because Reilly did not fully utilise their potentials, throughout the book we see no reason why CJ has to be a woman. True, she pays attention to underprivileged characters such as abused workers, young children and tortured animals, but empathy is a virtue both men and women have. More importantly, while CJ’s action in helping the Chinese engineer Li and the dragon Lucky pays off brilliantly, her befriending eight-year-old Minnie does not serve any purpose. i.e. We do not see the sort of emotional interaction between Ellen Ripley and Newt in Aliens (1986) – or, to that effect, the sort of friendship established between Alan Grant and the two kids in Jurassic Park – that, if implemented in The Great Zoo of China, would have considerably enhanced CJ’s character. Even with that said, it does not make it necessary for CJ to be a woman.

I find it highly amusing that CJ conveniently knows how to speak Mandarin, as almost every character in the book, including the dragon Lucky (through a machine that translates her grunts and guttural noises into human language), speaks English. While this is another point that could have been further explored in The Great Zoo of China, it is ultimately a very entertaining book. A good read for the weekends, I would recommend.

 

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