Book Review: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper (May 23, 2017)
Length: 320 pages
Author Information: Website
I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan, but admittedly I went into Dragon Teeth with reservations. After all, posthumously published works tend to make me a little wary, and the last two novels published after Crichton’s death have not exactly disabused me of this bias, reinforcing my belief that most “found manuscripts” are doomed to disappoint. So you can imagine my surprise when I finished this book and found that I really enjoyed it. Granted, I love paleontology and I love Westerns, but unlike Pirate Latitudes or Micro (completed by Richard Preston), both of which I felt were unpolished and sloppy in their execution, Dragon Teeth actually felt solidly put together and complete.
It all began with a not-so-friendly wager. The year is 1876 and William Johnson, a Yale student and the son of a wealthy shipping magnate is goaded into traveling west by a rival student, who bet a thousand dollars that privileged and sheltered William would not have what it takes to visit America’s wild and lawless frontier. Fueled by his pride, our protagonist impulsively signs on with a bone-finding expedition to the western territories, claiming himself to be a professional photographer, not realizing just how far in over his head he’s gotten himself. For you see, the expedition is led by renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who is embroiled in a bitter rivalry of his own. Notoriously difficult to work with, Marsh is unscrupulous and paranoid, convinced that his arch nemesis, the equally distinguished paleontologist Edwin Drinker Cope is always on his trail, ready to swoop in and steal his research.
Unfortunately, that paranoia ultimately leads Marsh to abandon William in Wyoming, believing him to be one of Cope’s spies. In an ironic twist of fate, however, Cope himself finds our poor, confused protagonist and extends an invitation to join his own expedition, to which William has no choice but to accept. To his pleasant surprise, he winds up finding Edwin Drinker Cope to be a rather pleasant fellow, with a fearsome temper to be sure, but still nothing like the monster Marsh made him out to be. Their expedition might also be smaller and less organized, but on the whole William is much happier since he switched sides, his enthusiasm for the work increasing the more he learns. Then one day, their team stumbles upon a huge find. But in the paleontology field, the discovery of a lifetime often goes hand in hand with plenty of dangers. From the moment William decided he was going to go west, he had known he would be facing all kinds of challenges, but little did he expect just how far he would go for a pile of dusty old bones.
Unlike Crichton’s other novels about dinosaurs, Dragon Teeth is pure historical fiction, its premise based on a frenzied period of fossil research and discovery in the late 1800s known as “The Bone Wars” or the “Great Dinosaur Rush”. It’s a fascinating topic, and I was impressed to see how deftly all the seemingly mundane details were woven into such a tight, thrilling and intense page-turner. That said, this is also a story that just begs to be told. In a time when explorers, settlers, and gold seekers were heading their way west in the hopes of striking it rich, paleontologists were instead scrambling all over the rich bone beds of the western territories, searching for fossils. Both Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were real, and so was their feud where they infamously sought to destroy each other’s’ careers and reputations, often resorting to underhanded tactics like theft, slander and outright sabotage. While William Johnson himself may be a fictional protagonist, through his bamboozled and mystified eyes, readers are given front row seats to witness the full extent of their roaring rivalry.
In the end though, the plot of Dragon Teeth comes down to a journey of personal growth. William is a stuck-up entitled jackass when we first meet him, used to power and money getting him whatever he wants. But the West changes him, stripping away his privilege and hardening his spirit. Far from home where no one knows or cares who he is, William quickly learns to pull his own weight and ultimately finds that there is more to life than empty materialism and shallow pleasures. Reading about his fraught adventures is just as enjoyable as reading about the history of the time and place, especially in the novel’s second half which sees the story evolving into something straight out of a Spaghetti Western. After a run in with a notorious outlaw, William even winds up allying with none other than Wyatt Earp.
Still, I must warn that while Dragon Teeth feels very much like a complete, articulate novel, the level of detail is nowhere near that of some of Crichton’s best works. In some ways the book reads like a highly polished draft with the finished framework in place, simply waiting for the author to put more meat on its bones but of course he never got the chance. Despite characters and descriptions being a bit sparse though, the story itself does not suffer much, nor is the overall novel less readable because of it. In fact, it’s possible some readers might even prefer this straightforward and pragmatic approach and appreciate the novel’s swift, no-nonsense pacing.
In sum, Dragon Teeth was a lot better than I thought it would be, and unlike Pirate Latitudes or Micro, I would actually recommend it. That being said, you still shouldn’t go into this expecting an epic adventure with the level of research and detail on par with the author’s more famous novels that he wrote in life, but as far as posthumously released publications go, this one was pretty damn decent.