Review: THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA by Matthew Reilly (Gallery/Orion)

Reilly-GreatZooOfChinaUSA ferociously-paced action adventure

It is a secret the Chinese government has been keeping for 40 years. They have found a species of animal no one believed even existed. It will amaze the world.

Now the Chinese are ready to unveil their astonishing discovery within the greatest zoo ever constructed. A small group of VIPs and journalists has been brought to the zoo deep within China to see its fabulous creatures for the first time. Among them is Dr Cassandra Jane ‘CJ’ Cameron, a writer for National Geographic and an expert on reptiles.

The visitors are assured by their Chinese hosts that they will be struck with wonder at these beasts, that they are perfectly safe, and that nothing can go wrong…

I’m a big fan of Matthew Reilly’s novels — they’re unashamedly fun, action-packed adventure stories writ large. There is always a lot of research behind the extravagant action, which keeps the story rooted in reality (slightly twisted on occasion, of course). Each new novel by the author is a very welcome addition to my library, and I have enjoyed each one I’ve read (I’ve fallen a bit behind, recently). The Great Zoo of China is no exception: this is an absolute blast of a read.

Given the incredible pacing, I’m going to keep the review short, as it quickly becomes clear that discussing the events at great length will just ruin everything.

Reilly-GreatZooOfChinaUKA group of journalists from the US are invited by the Chinese to get the first look at a wonder that is supposed to cement China’s place as the preeminent nation in the world. Along for the ride is also the US Ambassador to China, his bodyguard, and CJ and Hamish — a world-class reptile expert and journalist, and her photographer brother. Upon arriving at the zoo, they realise that things are not as they had originally been led to believe: this is a zoo of dragons. Naturally, things very quickly go to hell. From around the 20% mark, there was barely a moment to catch one’s breath. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire” is an excellent way to describe almost every development in the novel… There were times when the story veered a little too close to becoming ridiculous, but each time Reilly pulled things back nicely. Perhaps oddly, there were moments later in the novel that made me think of How to Train Your Dragon

Speaking of dragons, I really liked the way the author constructed his reason for their existence. It’s a nice melange of dinosaurs and big-ass reptile über-predator. It was a pretty well-thought-out fantasy. There are different types, well-constructed “science” behind their survival and apparent absence from history — I especially liked the explanation for the dragon myth’s ubiquity, even in times when intercontinental travel was negligible at best. Cleverly done.

Very quickly, I got the sense of C.J. and Hamish’s dynamic as similar to Rachel Weisz and John Hannah’s sibling characters in The Mummy movies: he playing the slight comic relief to her more-serious, highly-competent bearing. It works, as it is more understated than in those movies. The rest of the characters are well-drawn, but by far the most important is CJ, who is properly realised on the page (also, thankfully, some of the incredible feats she accomplishes are put down to luck, rather than superhuman ability). The others are realistic, a few don’t survive, but some do. The antagonists aren’t presented as cartoons or stereotypes, nor do they evoke the worst tendencies of Western writers who write Asian characters. And, thankfully, not all of the Chinese are “bad guys” (although some of them do have to be for the sake of the story and because they are the ones running the zoo).

Reilly-GreatZooOfChinaAUSComparisons to Jurassic Park are obvious, as well as addressed in the novel. While I’ve mentioned the pacing a number of times, it should also be pointed out that the rapid movement of events does not bury the story, it’s still very much there: there’s a clear trajectory, and proper plot and character development. It’s not strictly speaking deep, but there’s tension, cliffhangers, suspense, and thrills galore. And big action sequences. And lots and lots of huge dragons…

Most interesting for me, alongside the breakneck adventure fun, was Reilly’s characters’ comments on China’s power and also its shortcomings. As someone who has studied China’s Rise, its relationship with the US and its neighbours for well over a decade, I thought the author did a great job of referring eloquently and clearly to plenty of even-handed, cautious interpretations. There is some pointed criticism that pops up a number of times, and that is pretty in line with Australian and Western sentiment towards China. I thought this was really interesting, though I’m not sure if others will notice or care.

Overall, then, this is very much recommended. If you like your fiction fast-paced, adventure-filled, and above all a hell of a lot of fun, then The Great Zoo of China is a must read. A great start to the New Year.


The Great Zoo of China is published in North America by Gallery (January 27), in the UK by Orion (February 12), and in Australia and New Zealand by Macmillan (out now). You can watch a video of Reilly discussing the novel, here.

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