The Great Zoo of China : not worth finishing?

The_Great_Zoo_of_China_first_editionI tried to like this book.

Mr Rilley is one of Australia’s most popular authors, and I have never read any of his work. I was put off, many years ago, by an interview he did for ABC Radio, where they had him describe his work in third person, with a tremendous amount of self-congratulation. Avoiding his work because of this was unfair. I was not considering his work on its merit or accepting him as a complex person rather than as a pose adopted for marketing.

I listened to this book up to the start of the Fifth Evolution. By that point it was well past my usual cutoff (impress me within an hour),  so I stopped listening.

With the caveat that the plot may have a stunning twist I did not hear because I finished early, it will be of interest to people who like cinematic adventures full of unlikely, last-minute saves. It is difficult to recommend broadly.

The faults with The Great Zoo of China, for me, are as follows:

  • The book cannot decide if it wants you to know the Great Zoo has dragons in it. The back cover blurb skirts the issue, but the front cover image of the standard print edition makes the presence of dragons so obvious that it is just an irritant that the book tries to be coy about them.
  • In story, the Zoo is similarly unable to decide if it is secret or not. A great deal of effort goes into explaining how the construction staff never saw any of the dragons. How they avoided working out what was going on when they were building the animal handling facilities is unclear. How the Zoo was able to hire a West Coast consultancy to brand their dragons, and not have the secret leak is unclear.
  • The characters talk about how careful they were to make sure no-one saw the dragon logo until the unveiling. At the unveiling, however, there are dozens of different types of dragon-logo merchandise in the gift bags, and worn by the staff. This product development and manufacturing doesn’t breach security somehow, despite involving many different companies, in many different facilitates in various countries. China has real problems with the companies that make American products making off-brand versions that sell cheaper but are “pirate” only in the sense that they are not officially licensed. How has the Chinese real dragon IP not filtered into the Geekosphere were it would be worth an awful lot of money?
  • How the Zoo can have dragon shooting parties and yet maintain secrecy is unclear. The Zoo needs to advertise their service to the high-rollers it attracts, which means there’s a large pool of influential people who know the secret. The hunters, as I understand it, get to photograph their kills, and yet they cannot get the bragging rights of posting their selfies on Renren or Facebook.
  • Mr Reilly seems to have misunderstood the geopolitics of the rise of China. He doesn’t accept multipolarity at all: just a straight substitution of Chinese hegemony for American. For example, he seems to be unaware that China will cease being the world’s most populous nation in about five years’ time. As the rise of China is the motivating framework for the actions of his villains, it makes them cyphers.
  • The folklore has faults in it which I thought were there deliberately, to indicate that the dragons are artificial. For example, it has Hercules fighting a dragon in Greece to collect the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The so-called dragon, in that myth, is a multi-headed hydra-like beast, without wings. Also, as the name suggests, he fought it in the Hesperides, which we now call the Canary Islands. This is Wikipedia-level stuff, so it was an accidental red herring.
  • The characters keep making last-minute escapes: many of these do not make sense. For example, if you have ever burned off a wasp nest with a can of hairspray and a lighter, you may be interested to know the same method and equipment can be used to incinerate armed guards. It apparently also sets off the hand grenades the guards are carrying.
  • Many other saves are pure ex machina. The characters do not bring about their own rescue. Instead, cinematic things happen to whatever is threatening them. This has the dramatic appeal of villains in movies being randomly killed by meteors as the leads walk past them.
  • Friendship is magic. If CJ, the lead character, likes you, then you are golden. If CJ dislikes you, or is unaware of your significance, you are dragon chow.
  • The heroes run around a lot, even when they have the chance to hole up and defend themselves.  They also choose not to leave the park if they think it may allow a dragon to escape, despite knowing that there is a wing of helicopter gunships nearby destroying dragons. They seem to need to keep moving to go from one thrilling event to another, which makes sense in that the story needs to progress. It does not, however, make sense for the characters, who are presumably motivated by their own survival.

So, a book difficult to recommend except if you like fast paced action held together with a thin plot.