Book review: Great Zoo of China is clever tale

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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.

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Throwback Thursday: A book review of Planet of the Dragons

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Choose Your Own Adventure book #75

Although I read dozens of Choose Your Own Adventure books growing up, this is one of the few whose contents I remember.  The evocative title, Planet of the Dragons, appeals to me as much today as it did as a youngster.  While rummaging through a box of old books in the attic (literally), what choice did I have but to rescue this volume from storage and re-live the old adventure?

Your escape pod crash lands on Tambor, hundreds of light years from Earth.  You crawl out.  Smoke rises from the plains—a sign of battle.  Do you venture in that direction, or take to the hills?  The choices you make will determine the story unfolds for you.

Broadly speaking, there are three main potential storylines in this book, each involving a mysterious race of mechanical dragons which are not native to Tambor.  In one plotline, you meet a human girl named Millie who is worried but knowledgeable about the dragons.  If you choose differently, you never meet Millie, but you meet a strange race of Hyskos, humanoid creatures with bird faces who live on giant bubbles in the sky.  They are threatened by the dragons, and they would be thrilled to come up with a way to defeat them.  The third big story involves the Derns, a hobbit-like terrestrial race that is scared of the Hyskos and of the dragons, but has scientific knowledge that could be useful in the fight.

The various sub-stories involved with Millie are probably the most relatable and fun with some of the better endings in the book.  The interactions with the Hyskos can go well or badly, and they are a vivid species that I think captured my imagination as a young reader.  I don’t remember the Derns when I first read this book, and now I realize that may have been because the Derns bore me.  Their story takes up a lot of the book’s 117 pages.

The common thread is the threat of the dragons.  This creates a sense of wonder, suspense, and doom, and some neat artwork, but the fact that the dragons are mechanical devices is a letdown.  Also, there are a few storylines where you never encounter the dragons at all.  Additionally, you never really figure out the origins of the space dragons either, despite foreshadowing about “the Taurans, an evil race” on the first page of the book.

The natives of Tambor tell you that there is a race of indigenous dragons who are different from the evil machines.  But the native dragons were driven into hiding when the space dragons attacked.  As near as I could tell, there is only one single sub-storyline that leads you to meet the native dragons, and they are only described for barely one page.  I felt that was a missed opportunity.  I would have loved to see some storylines where you end up joining forces with the local, genuine dragons against the invading robot dragons!

Anyway, I loved the overall concept, obviously enough to read it and enjoy it at two distinct times in my life.  The options you get to choose from are reasonable, and the endings are fair, as in, “Okay, my choices didn’t end well for me, but that was still fun,” or “Yes, I made the right choice!”  I feel this book is a very good example of the series.  But I would have chosen more flesh-and-blood fire breathing dragons!