Arts Week

Here There Be Dragons

cover53960-mediumMatthew Reilly’s new thriller, The Great Zoo of China, has action. Lots of it. On every page.

Of course, a lot of action does not necessarily a novel make, and when even the most exciting of sequences is repeated too many times it becomes old. Really old. I was surprised to find myself scanning rather than reading page after page of this supposedly taut thriller: she’s in danger again. Oh, look, she’s in danger again! Oops, in danger again. In… danger… again.

Let’s start with the premise, which will strike anyone remotely familiar with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park as derivative. The Chinese government has been keeping a secret for forty years: they’ve found a species of animal no one believed even existed and are ready to unveil their astonishing discovery inside the greatest zoo ever constructed. A small group of VIPs and journalists is brought to the zoo to see its fabulous creatures for the first time. And, naturally, things go wrong. Really, really wrong.

Fantasy landscape with a tower by the river and a dragonYep. You see where we’re going with this. And the author does so faithfully, building tension with hints and foreshadowing, even adding the requisite beast-chasing-human-in-the-industrial-kitchen scene.

To do him justice, Reilly has given the premise a lot of thought. His zoo is well-designed and well-explained, and the visuals that rise off the book’s pages are nothing less than stunning. He supplements them with charts and maps that some readers may appreciate, and gives us character sketches that, while predictable, do manage to engage. He’s paid attention to everything about the creatures in the zoo, from birth to feeding habits to rituals and behaviors, and maintains a consistency within his science fiction that makes it seem plausible. That’s all good.

I’ve done an episode on The Writer’s Toolkit here on WOMR that addresses the necessity for fiction to maintain forward momentum. You’d think that a novel in which people are fighting, running, hiding, getting killed (gruesomely) and performing feats of acrobatic impossibility (seriously, we haven’t seen anyone moving around the outside of a vehicle with such mobility since the unfortunate movie Speed) would have that forward momentum, but the reality is that momentum is maintained by changes of pace, and Reilly doesn’t have them: after the setup, he’s at 100%, 100% of the time.

Still, if you’re looking for something to help you while away a couple of hours in total escapism, The Great Zoo of China is a good candidate. It’ll be out in January from Gallery Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) and if you have an action-lover on your gift list, you can preorder it today.