Frenetic fantasy

Frenetic fantasy

Frenetic fantasy

Australian action-novelist Matthew Reilly, a big fan of Hollywood blockbusters, hopes to one day direct a movie adapted from one of his own books. Reilly need not wait long. His latest offering, The Great Zoo of China, seems eminently suitable for the big screen. Reilly, who admits to being a huge fan of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, has in fact written his own big beautiful scary homage to that iconic book-cum-film.

Reilly’s fantastic yarn is set right in the interiors of a very happening in-your-face country, China — a nation that has developed quickly and hugely through the last couple of decades. China, says Reilly, has this manifest yearning to overtake America as the world’s economic and cultural capital — and what better way to outshine American icon Disneyland than with a big, unique zoological park?

But before the story can zip off like the Maglev Bullet trains it features, we are given a 100-plus pages of background-cum-breather. After a rather ominous prologue that promises later chills, the reader gets introduced, one by one, to the small American group that has been invited to visit, preview and report back (favourably) about the great zoo.

So you have the spunky female herpetologist, Dr Cassandra Jane ‘CJ’ Cameron, specifically sought after by the Chinese authorities. Her understanding and experiences with crocodiles, in fact, form the basis for the story’s trajectory. She and her warzone photographer brother Hamish make for a loving, sensible team. Then there is an American diplomat and his quiet but active aide; and to round off, a couple of fast-talking knowledgeable American media names.

And so they arrive, at a secluded location deep within China. They are puzzled by the secrecy, dazzled by the size and shine, secretly skeptical — and soon enough amazed at all that they behold. Deep in a beautiful primordial valley that’s part manmade and part natural, is a place that is described aptly and grandiosely by smooth Mr Hu Tang, the Chinese Politburo official who proclaims: “Welcome to the most incredible place on earth!”
This is a zoo built in secrecy, through 40 years, housed in a colossal valley, and now ready to be revealed.

All safeguards are in place and all that  the guests need to do is enjoy their ride in a snazzy big-windowed cable-car; click away at the sights — lakes, cliffs, castles, the huge soaring dragons — yes, those mythical flying reptilians familiar  through ages of literature; perched here and there on craggy turrets, gliding… with, wait… one airliner-sized beast glaring right at CJ!

Admittedly, the dinosaur-like reptilian dragons do seem extremely scary; their obvious intelligence lends them the dignity of character that seems wanting in many of the human characters. And a wary CJ has yet been admiring the capacity of the Chinese to not only breed ancient animals, but also sculpt the very landscape to accommodate them.

Suddenly, but not unexpectedly, ‘in the space of a few terrible seconds, CJ Cameron’s tour of the Great Dragon Zoo of China went to hell.’

And from this moment of actual collision between man and beast, it’s a race for survival, as limbs are torn, blood flows freely, vehicles and machines are tossed about like toys, and the American visitors, besides others, manage to escape by the skin of their teeth — or perish, as per the author’s story plan. Interestingly, at one point early in this section, the American group is finally on safe ground, or so they think… but soon they are battling on various fronts, and not just crocodiles in water and the dragons around them.

The action now traverses the next 365-odd pages — and though the story’s needs have to be met, a large terrain covered — it occasionally gets a tad tedious and humourless. Still, scientific principles, some pseudoscience, and happenstance are utilised to carve out a resolution and justice — but not before massive doses of gore, timely escapes from hopeless situations, and a willing suspension of disbelief are utilised towards a climax that resonates to the moral — don’t tinker with nature, don’t over-reach.

But what interested me beyond the confines of the Jurassic Park genre was the packets of extremely interesting information about a fast developing ancient society, once cloistered, now determined to shine on the world stage.

The author’s research on animals and China’s geopolitics clearly shows. And, expectedly, some Chinese characters play villains, just as the Russians did in spy novels from the 60s. But Reilly tries to be even-handed; so you have an American antagonist who gets his comeuppance. And there is even a good dragon one bats for!

Michael Reilly’s earlier book, The Tournament (a sedately paced historical-erotic actioner that I’ve liked), is said to have disappointed his core fan base. This one will not. To me though, it’s a one-time read, good, not great.

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
Comments (+)