The dinosaur craze seems to be over, sorry to say. One last hurrah: Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, the latest entry in the Dinotopia series, is out now. James Gurney wrote and illustrated the original 3 books in the 90s, and returns to the scene of his triumph just about ten years later. Is the magic still there?
I dunno, I was never super thrilled by dinosaurs… maybe I was too old during the 90s? I mean, I saw Jurassic Park just like everyone else, but images of dinosaurs don’t have a visceral thrill for me like some other pop culture items might. My brain is weird that way. For example, I find vampires kinda boring, but even the lowliest zombie movie will give me nightmares for weeks. Dinosaurs fall into the former category for me.
Another odd tic of mine: I get really enthusiastic about the first work of an author and then less enthused as time wears on – and this despite the fact that they should be learning their craft and improving. I might be a novelty junkie or something. (Another possible explanation: authors have long years to work on a debut, but the follow-up has to be 12 months later, as they say).
So, when Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara came out earlier this year, I had two things on my mind: dinosaurs… why now? And, will Gurney have improved with age or gotten boring and repetitious?
As it turns out, the 15 years since the original Dinotopia have worked in Gurney’s favour. At the baldest level, Journey to Chandara is not much more than a reworking of the earlier Dinotopia books. But Gurney hasn’t lost his writing or painting skills. And the anti-trendiness is fine too: sure, there’s an element of faded glory here, but at least it’s not a bandwagon any more. What’s more, the easy stuff on the topic of dinosaurs has been skimmed off, so Gurney has to work harder than ever. And that’s always been the key, as far as I can tell, to making a sequel that doesn’t suck. If you realize that a sequel is harder, not easier, than go ahead and give it a try. Long odds, but at least you’ve started off a step ahead of everyone else.
The book itself breaks down into several types of things. There is text, but it’s fairly straightforward stuff. An obscure manuscript turns out to be the long-lost diary of Arthur Dennison, an explorer from the 1860s who discovered the island of Dinotopia – dinosaurs and humans have a thriving society together in friendship – and is now crossing the vast land to the mysterious city of Chandara. The small bits of text are surrounded by large-scale paintings of the flora and fauna of this wonderful land.
I was amazed by the amount of detail in the depiction of dinosaurs; for one thing, the paintings include the proper Latin name of each dinosaur. Gurney has clearly done his research – a lot of interesting and recent paleontological research gets channeled into this “fictional” world. Chandara is like an excuse to portray all of the new finds from the Gobi.
My particular favourite is a linked set of two-page spreads right near the beginning of the book. The adventure starts in a city named Waterfall City, and we’re given a map of it, complete with labels for all the buildings and geographical features. So far so good, I love that stuff. Then you turn the page and you get a gorgeous two page spread that shows the city itself in action. You have to turn the page back and forth, checking to see what each item is. It was a neat effect, and, oddly, better than if the map had been an inset right next to the big blow-up.
I would highly recommend the blog that Gurney set up for the book tour associated with this latest Dinotopia entry. The blog’s called Gurney Journey (also available on the Amazon page for the book) and it seems like he knows everyone in the illustration AND paleontology worlds. But he doesn’t seem to be much of a pretentious guy – it’s all a big community of excitable creative types, which makes me a little envious. And the blog itself feels generous, with lots of advice on drawing techniques, how to put an immense project together, keeping motivated, etc. I also like his bits on inspiration: I actually found his blog by way of a particular post that’s still the best of them all, Cracking Paint and City Streets. I used to love drawing maps and making castles in the mud and such when I was a kid, so this struck a chord for me.
So, on its own, there’s not much to fault with the latest Dinotopia venture. It’s got lovely paintings to look at, a story that gives an excuse to wander through various landscapes, and the book itself is put together beautifully. Does it add up to more than that? I was more moved by the book than I thought I would; that’s partly my inner child speaking, marvelling at the creatures and maps and funny details. But more than that, it’s an odd, singular vision presented in the Dinotopia world, and I respond to worlds that are portrayed so coherently and so lovingly.