Book review: Great Zoo of China is clever tale

Standard

the-great-zoo-of-china-cover-png

In my review of Planet of the Dragons, I complained that there weren’t enough dragons.  Not so here.  The Great Zoo of China is bursting at the seams with dragons of every color and size.  Prince (horse-size), king (bus-size), and emperor (airplane-size) dragons.  Yellow, red-bellied blacks, swamp dragons, etc.  Possibly even too many dragons.  Chalk it up to being careful what you wish for!

Regarding the debate about whether this book is too similar to Jurassic Park, I would say that the first half was too reminiscent, but that wasn’t a deal killer for me any more so than The Land That Time Forgot capitalizing on the Lost World a hundred years ago.  Building on the popularity of another book isn’t a new development in the publishing industry.  But like TLTTF and Lost World, the predecessor was superior to the successor.

The explanation for the origins of dragons and why different cultures have their own dragon legends is superb.  It’s a truly great premise.  Coupling that with the military and cultural ambitions of modern China is even better.  My qualms are not with the fundamental story, but more so with the execution.

The writing in the book is uneven.  There are excessive explanations of exactly who is located where with exactly which groups.  It’s as if an attempt is being made to prove to the reader that the author hasn’t forgotten where all the characters are.  Too many times when Chinese people are speaking, the text reiterates that they spoke “in Mandarin.” That got old.  Generally, I assume the English speakers in the book are speaking English, and the Chinese ones are speaking Chinese.  The only time it’s somewhat helpful is when the main American character, CJ, speaks in Mandarin, but even then, it’s not always needed.  I didn’t really care what language anybody speaks as long as the book is in English.

The book was also marred by an awkward transition from happy albeit VIP tour of the dragon zoo to a nightmare.  One passage we’ve had a great experience learning about the exotic dragons.  We step inside for a nice lunch, and by the time we come out, the dragons have pulled off their electronic monitors and eat the humans.  It was too abrupt.

Another problem in the beginning and middle was a lack of suspense.  I guess I was supposed to sense that something would go terribly wrong, but I never got too worked up or engaged wondering what would happen next.  Maybe it was because the characters weren’t quite compelling enough, or because the foreshadowing was too subtle or non-existent.

But the book definitely picked up toward the end.  The various details gelled together and Frey presented several very clever ideas.  A great concept and a solid ending earn this book a favorable rating.

Advertisements

Book review: The Ascendant satisfies

Standard

the-ascendant-by-drew-chapman

First, the pacing. Good. Fast paced. This book had the right balance of plot, action, and switching between long scenes with our main character friends in the U.S. and shorter scenes with minor characters abroad.

The characters are colorful. Even if they feel like TV characters. There’s the title character, Garrett Reilly, a brilliant jerk who hates the military but ends up drafted. There’s another soldier who wants to die for his country but can’t get deployed because of a medical condition so he has to be a stateside desk analyst. There’s the beautiful but tough-as-nails love interest with leadership chops. Plus others, they make up a band of quirky geniuses who must unite to save the world.

From whom? With a clever twist, the novel has a wag-the-dog scenario but it’s precipitated by the China, not the U.S. The China scenes are handled a bit better than I would have expected. Especially being written by somebody without a foreign affairs or national security background.

But the U.S. government isn’t blameless in this book either. Garrett’s brother was killed in action, but the details of his death were covered up by the military. And even though the government recruits and trains Garrett, elements of the government turn on him. When he doesn’t answer their questions, they waterboard him. A bit sudden and extreme? Yes, and it doesn’t quite work. It’s the weakest and most paranoid part of the book.

Three out of five stars.

A quick summary which is a spoiler appears below/after the jump. Continue reading

Book Review: Bone Labyrinth is over-the-top fun

Standard

Bone Labyrinth

Congo meets Da Vinci Code.  Primate and human intelligence are explored against a backdrop of old Catholic secrets.  Throw in a larger than life team of heroes, stylish international travel, nail-biting firefights, nasty villains from China, and more narrow escapes than a Hardee Boys book, and you’ve got James Rollin’s Bone Labyrinth.

Bone Labyrinth alternates between an A-story and a B-story, each focused on one of two brilliant sisters separated by an ocean, and each accompanied by half of “Sigma Force,” an ultra-elite team of quasi-military-spy characters.

One sister, Maria, is the surrogate mother for Baako, a gorilla hybrid who is smarter than normal (and at least in the beginning, appears to be psychic as well).  Her love for Baako and his love for her proves that she is as tender and caring as she is brilliant.  Kowalski, a member of Sigma Force who knows sign language, is rough around the edges, but is able to communicate with Baako, thereby eventually earning love and respect from Baako and Maria.  They are all kidnapped for the secrets of Maria and Baako’s minds.

The other sister, Lena, has a knack for finding historical sites in Europe and South America that are easy to be trapped in by foreign assassins who are always right on her tail.  Thanks to Sigma’s Gray, who can see patterns when nobody else can, and his lover Seichan, who acts like Catwoman most of the time, Lena is protected as she finds one clue after another about the origins of human life, but not without almost being drowned or shot at every turn.

The alternating plotlines and groups of characters may not be for all tastes.  On one hand, the dichotomy keeps things moving along, creates cliffhangers, and prevents boredom with one topic or series of scenes.  On the other hand, it’s one tease after another.  Usually the switches result in delayed gratification, stretching out the resolution to whatever conflict the characters find themselves in, but there are some instances where the switching is just a tease without gratification.

Bone Labyrinth is an ambitious novel, offering the possibility of explaining the moment in evolution known as the Great Leap Forward, or explaining Adam and Eve, or both.  The book is like a treasure hunt, but the treasure is the understanding of human intelligence rather than material wealth.  By that measure, Bone Labyrinth doesn’t hit the bullseye, but at least it goes in the direction of the target.

It is a fun novel.  The characters all have their own back stories and very specific traits, and from that standpoint they are well developed.  They each have some weakness to balance out their enormous gifts and talents.  But I think even James Rollins would admit that they’re all a bit over the top.  I think it’s intentional, because it is kind of fun to watch these combat geniuses at work.

If you love thrillers, or loved reading adventures as a kid (I really wasn’t kidding about the Hardee Boys similarity), you will enjoy this book like I did.  Rollins’s ability to make science and history thrilling is impressive, but don’t expect it to be quite like a Michael Crichton book—ultimately Bone Labyrinth’s fun characters and rapid-fire action scenes are what animate this book, and science very important but somewhat secondary to that.