In high school, I was a big fan of Matthew Reilly’s, especially the action-packed Hover Car Racer. As an Australian, it’s nice to read other Australian writers – even if Reilly isn’t exactly Tim Winton or Miles Franklin, and most of his protagonists aren’t Australian, and most of his books aren’t set in Australia.
Still, I was pretty interested to check out The Great Zoo of China, especially because it’s set in China and also because it’s his first book to feature a female protagonist. (Although Reilly makes it abundantly clear that having a female protagonist is not a statement, so if you thought he was some kind of feminist or something, you’re wrong.)
Cassandra “CJ” Cameron is a herpetologist that is pretty but scarred from an encounter with an alligator (crocodile? I can never remember). She, her brother Hamish and a few other Americans are invited to visit the mysterious Great Zoo of China to see (spoilers) dragons. The Zoo is meant to be China’s attempt to propel themselves into first place, beyond America’s world influence. But, a la Jurassic Park, everything goes terribly, terribly wrong. You can do the maths – lots of giant winged creatures f**king shit up.
Before we actually get into the meat (haha) of the story, I should disclose that I’m of Chinese heritage, but I’ve only ever been to China a couple of times. Still, a lot of the writing didn’t agree with me. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t particularly like the Communist Party of China, but China isn’t the Communist Party.
Although Reilly is Australian, you can clearly read his American influences. He comes across as extremely critical of China – and while he makes the distinction once or twice between the Communist Party of China and the entirety of China, he mostly doesn’t seem to distinguish between the average Chinese person and the big, bad Government. The only time the common Chinese man comes into it is when they’re being mistreated by a big, bad Government employee – to much righteous indignation from CJ.
He also makes some strangely tone deaf statements about Chinese culture. While it’s true that American culture is incredibly pervasive in modern society, the assumption that China is somehow void of culture is a little insensitive. It’s a little like he did some cursory research into China and simply went from there. It’s a real shame, because there are some really interesting ideas in The Great Zoo of China. China is a behemoth that often tramples on the lower classes to elevate certain other classes. (Remind you of anywhere else?)
He also leans a little heavily on the “China is awful” thing. There’s a small scene in which the guests receive gift bags – CJ has a bit of a complain about how she gets a lady’s gift bag. Nice to see what China thinks of women, she says, which comes across as less about women’s rights and more about telling us what terrible backwards people the Chinese are.
Speaking of CJ, she’s a decent protagonist, as Reilly protagonists go. She is backed up by several other Americans, who are alternately dragon fodder and vaguely useful. But the characters aren’t really the important part of this story. In fact, neither is the story. The most important part of this book, as in any of the Reilly books, is the action.
And that action is quite well written. In addition to the usual bad guys, incredibly intelligent dragons are thrown into the mix, and well, that’s just cool. However, while the action is detailed and fun, the book as a whole is a bit of a bore.
It could easily have been cut by at least 100 pages, not to mention that a lot of it reads like a schoolboy excitedly telling his friend about something, especially with all those italics and exclamation marks. Think: there was an explosion and then this really awesome thing happened! Reilly also tends to tell, not show. Or tell and show. He’s not very subtle about his writing, which means that basically, it’s a fine book for what it is.
It’s not a masterpiece, there’s no real depth to it, and it’s not particularly original. But there are a few great action scenes, and there are dragons who can fly and tear things up, so that’s something.
The Great Zoo of China comes out on 27 January, 2015 in America.