Dinotopia: First Flight by James Gurney – Book Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius takes a look at the prequel establishing the series’ history, Dinotopia: First Flight by James Gurney.
“A step to far for the series, but an installment hardly without strengths.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Dinotopia has always been a curious series, feeling like something out of another age. It’s a story which feels like it’s been written right from the age of classic Dan Dare comics but with total sincerity, never once winking at its audience or feeling like a homage. That nature allows the often simplistic storytelling or sometimes out of time nature of each installment to retain your interest long enough to recognise some of the more brilliant elements of world building. It’s the level of thought behind certain elements of the world itself which always seemed to make it stand out, as well as the truly brilliant artwork which helped bring it to life. These elements remain a part of the work here, but it does feel like creator James Gurney took things a little too far this time.
Set during a time of war, the book sees Dinotopia on the verge of a massive conflict which could rip the island apart. The mechanised empire of Poseidos is seeking to expand into the otherwise peaceful world, with its leaders spurred on by visions of conquest and power. Rebelling against the society which raised him, the orphaned Gideon Altaire prepares to fight and save another world from extinction…
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: The art is breathtaking. The number of details, quality and sheer brilliance of each illustration is truly a marvel to behold and are easily the strongest point within the novel. Brightly coloured and intricately designed, everything from the futuristic environments of Poseidos to the more rustic jungles are brilliantly penciled. There are few to no bad things which can truly be said about them, and it is with these that the book earns a recommendation. Even if this had simply been an artbook it would be well worth the price of purchase.
The other positive thing is that there is a definitive arc to the story which fits with the classical feel of the series. Altaire’s story is traditionalist to a fault, completely embracing every trope and idea of a lowly hero opposing an empire but it oddly works due to the simplicity of its presentation. You clearly see what separates him from the rest of his people very early on and just why he accomplishes his victories as the story goes by. It might be extremely simple to the point of being borderline archaic at times, but the storytelling does hit all the basics without any glaring flaws in his tale. Unfortunately the problems begin to creep in once you move away from this.
Speaking personally for a moment, what made the original Dinotopia work was that its story was mostly an excuse to see the world the book was set in. The journey there traveled the length and breadth of the island, briefly touching upon each area of interest in turn before coming to an end. It built up a real idea of how this society could exist, with a number of surprising factors which would normally be overlooked by other authors. Here it seems that strength has been forgotten in favour of a much more straightforwards story of an evil empire and a hero; as a result it unfortunately makes the book all the more unremarkable. For all we see of Poseidos, with all the additional notes added, it looks as if the book is skipping past them to instead emphasise upon the war. This would be fine normally, but the book’s format simply isn’t suited to detailing conflict and squanders far too much of its potential by focusing upon this aspect. This is also ignoring the other big problem.
While not nearly as bad as James Cameron’s venomous, screaming production about the evils of science and how great nature is, there is obvious moralising going on here. The good guys are the ones with primitive weapons who are attuned with nature. The evil ones are a technologically advanced empire who are seeking to expand their borders for power’s sake. We’ve seen this song and dance many times before, and given the later paradise shown in the books it comes across as heavily anti-technology and anti-progress. Combined with how extremely ineffectual the machines of war are, and that many seem to be designed as poor copies of dinosaurs, you can’t help but feel the entire thing was weighted in favour of one side.
Now, obviously any industrial age metropolis is an easy bad guy for a book, but so are towering towering flesh eating lizards of war ridden by savages. The few points where First Flight does try to show technology in a good light feel more like concessions highlighting a few exceptions in their society than saying a technological civilisation is bad. It might be children’s fiction but that doesn’t mean that it should demonise one side so easily.
The book isn’t especially bad, but it’s not exactly good either. The previous books simply do a better job at presenting the world at large and feel less like they are pushing a message.