Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Great Zoo of China

The Great Zoo of China
by Matthew Reilly
Recommended Ages: 14+

This "action thriller," from an Australian author who specializes in them, features a gutsy female hero who often says, after surviving a perilous escapade, "That was character building." CJ Cameron is a National Geographic writer who gave up studying reptiles when a crocodile bit half her face off - long story, no time for details right now. So, she lived, and now with her photographer brother Hamish she has come to China to get a sneak peek at a secret project the communist government is about to open to the public: a fabulous zoo, cradled in a mostly man-made valley, featuring creatures out of ancient legend that have hatched from eggs found deep underground. The advance-publicity logos describing the site as "The Great Zoo of China" are actually deceptive. Its real name will be "The Great Dragon Zoo of China."

Apparently, the Chinese haven't seen Jurassic Park. Unlike CJ, who spots the possibility right off, they don't even seem to think something like this could happen - though, secretly, they've already had to execute a bunch of people who witnessed mishaps that could be embarrassing to the regime. When, right on schedule, the dragons decide to go ahead with their fiendishly clever plan to break out of the zoo, CJ and the other visiting dignitaries find themselves in the middle of a war zone, with scaly killing machines on one side and well-armed Chinese soldiers on the other. Both sides are determined to wipe out CJ & Co. to the last man or woman - to say nothing of a swampful of big, hungry crocodiles. The chances of survival, even for a few of the good guys, are slim. For CJ, keeping herself and her friends alive will definitely be a character-building experience.

There's a lot more to this book than explosions, gruesome deaths, and battles with beasts that would put the special-effects budget for a movie adaptation in the neighborhood of a small country's gross domestic product. It has terrific suspense, gut-gripping horror, pulse-ramping action, all the usual thriller furniture. But it also has CJ and Hamish, who are really fun characters to be around. It has a good dragon who becomes a truly individual character. It has a very light touch of romance, though somehow, the attraction between the girl and the dragon seems to throw more sparks than the girl-boy thing. It has occasional diagrams and charts to help the reader visualize the complex progress of the action. It has an interesting perspective on the connection between history and legend. And it has, at last, a terrible threat to the future of mankind that can only be stopped, if at all, by a whole series of actions requiring practically ridiculous levels of heroism. Character building, indeed!

Matthew Reilly, of whom I had frankly never heard until I grabbed this paperback off a supermarket book stand, has so far written the five-book "Scarecrow" series, starting with Ice Station; the "Hover Car Racer" trilogy, starting with the graphic novel Crash Course; the continuing "Jack West, Jr." series, of which a fourth installment is rumored to be coming soon; a historical thriller The Tournament about Queen Elizabeth I and her tutor, which now has a prequel; and the novels Temple, Conquest, and Troll Mountain. In some circles, probably lines of southern latitude, he seems to be very popular; the troll book was published in serial form, and several characters in this book were named after the winners of a charity auction, including no less than Hamish Cameron himself. Maybe we'll see Hamish and his sister again. Until then, these other titles will have to supply our addiction to "character-building" adventures.

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