Monday, November 11, 2013

Book review - MEG: Hell's Aquarium

Meg: Hell’s Aquarium – Steve Alten

There are action books that can do action incredibly well but are poor in terms of story and characters (Matthew Reilly – I still love you) and then there are the ones that are a cut above the rest (James Rollins).

For me Steve Alten’s Meg series definitely falls into the latter category. “Hell’s Aquarium” marks the fourth book (exluding the short novella) in the series and came out last year. Despite snapping it up, I have been delaying reading it as it would mean I was up to date in the series. Turns out I couldn’t resist any longer.

The Blurb:

The Philippine Sea Plate... the deepest, most unexplored realm on the planet. Hidden beneath its ancient crust lies the remains of the Panthalassa, an ocean that dates back 220 million years. Vast and isolated, the Panthalassa in inhabited by nightmarish species of sea creatures long believed extinct.

Tanaka Institute, Monterey, CA.:

Angel, the recaptured 76 foot, 100,000 pound Megalodon, has birthed a liter of pups -- five females -- far too numerous and aggressive to keep in one pen. One solution: A Dubai royal prince is building the largest aquarium in the world and seeks to purchase two of the "runts."

The deal hinges on hiring Jonas Taylor's 21 year old son, David, to be their trainer. Jonas reluctantly agrees, and David is off to Dubai for the summer of his life-- --not realizing he is being set-up to lead an expedition that will hunt down and capture the most dangerous creatures ever to inhabit the planet!

The thing about this series and so many action books, is that within the first 30 or so pages, you know exactly what is going to happen. You meet a character, they talk in a certain way, they might behave in a certain fashion and instantly you know how their story arc is going to turn out.

With “Hell’s Aquarium,” I guessed what was going to happen to everyone and even foresaw the plot twists a mile off. Maybe, it is because it was what I would have written or maybe because it is wholly unoriginal, but I really wanted to be surprised by the characters and unfortunately I wasn’t.

Jonas is still dam likeable. He struggles to run the aquarium that now hosts five Megalodons and finds himself increasingly embroiled in the bureaucracy and politics one would associate with running such a controversial theme park. What is refreshing is that he hads a genuine hatred for the sharks. This attitude is consistent and makes sense given all the anguish and heartache they have brought him.

In this entry to the series, Jonas’s son David takes a more prominent role. The rest of his family flit in and out and have no direct bearing on the plot. This is okay, as they do not take up valuable page time with unnecessary prose, but it would have been nice to see Jonas care for them a little bit more.  The only real emotion he demonstrates is for his son and his faithful friend Mac – who remains as cynical as ever.

David is far from likeable initially. He is your typical, young arrogant, the “world hates me” type of man. Dwarfed in his father’s shadow, he longs to prove himself in his own right. This story makes up the backbone of the plot as David seizes an opportunity to work in Dubai at a brand new aquarium. Despite Jonas’s protestations, his son goes anyway inevitably landing himself in deep water (see what I did there?). There is also a sub-plot regarding a group of radicals that believe the Megs should be freed, but this never really comes off and is tedious more than anything.

David’s arrogance and naivety allows him to be easily manipulated by practically everyone in the novel. His romantic interest verges on implausible yet somehow Alten still seems to make it work. I also found myself slowly growing to like David as he was humbled as the novel progressed.

It may sound like I am being critical about the lack of originality of the plot and characters but that doesn’t mean they are bad. As far this type of book goes, they are above average and just enough complexity is provided to raise them above two dimensional cut-outs.
There are even a few good secondary characters. Brian the drill instructor for example, is a nice foil for David’s character and allows the reader to witness a softer facet of his personality as he repeatedly outclasses the brass young man.

Despite the characters and the plot being highly predictable, the main reason I read this series is to be entertained. After four books it is a marvel that Alten can still write about a giant shark attacking people and make each scene sound fresh and exciting. Alten is truly skilled and delivers a mixture of scientific anatomy of the sharks and other prehistoric creatures without losing the reader in the process.

Some of the staged action scenes are truly breathtaking and are a pure joy to read. The set pieces also feel fairly natural and not contrived. Admittedly, you always know when one is about to happen, but the suspense and tension are always handled nicely.

The ending was suitably grand and there was also a nice surprise included which helped raise the enjoyment of the novel in my eyes. This series continues to be a guilty pleasure of mine that I have recommended to others, who are now firm Steve Alten fans. Bring on Meg 5.

My rating: 8.4