Meg: Hell's Aquarium is the 4th novel by Steve Alten in his series of cryptozoological fiction novels dealing with the discovery of giant megalodon sharks, terrifying apex predators that became extinct millions of years ago. Although it does work very well as a standalone novel, with little to no prior knowledge of the characters or previous events needed, if you want to read the books in chronological order, follow the list below:
Meg: Origins (Prequel read this after "The Trench."
MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror
MEG: Primal Waters
Meg: Hell's Aquarium
Meg: Night Stalkers (To be published in 2012)
Hell's Aquarium centers on Jonas Taylor, the protagonist from the previous books, now an aging director of the Tanaka Institute and Aquarium, which houses Angel, the giant megalodon shark featured in MEG: Primal Waters, and her 5 pups. The overcrowded institute must find a new home for the smaller megs, and turns toward a Dubai prince who is building a huge aquarium and wants to purchase two of the litter. We are also introduced to Jonas' 21-year old son, David Taylor, who is pretty much described just like Jonas was in MMEG: A Novel of Deep Terror.
Hell's aquarium follows the same formula that Alten used in his last two books. I don't think I'm spoiling too much to say that people get killed, Jonas hunts megs, and there are human villains as well. If you have read any other cryptofiction before, you will see that this is what ALL writers in this genre do. In the dozens of books like this I've read, I don't think I've seen an outline that differs very far from this structure. The difference is that Alten backs his novel up with spectacular action, well-developed characters, an easy-to-read style, and a somewhat plausible theory. Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief when reading books of this type, but he's done his research, and his theories as to why megalodons (and other sea creatures) are still alive can be fairly convincing from an entertainment point of view, as long as you don't get too deep into the science of it. I KNOW there's no way any of the events in the book could ever really happen or go undiscovered for so long, but I never actually thought about that while reading. I was too consumed with a desire to find out what is going to happen next. While there is some incredible action and behaviors exhibited by the megs, Alten thankfully leaves out any incidents of sharks breaching the water and swallowing helicopters, or swallowing entire subs, a la previous books. This is not to say that Alten doesn't take some creative liberties. I think at one point a liopleurodon is described in the novel as 120 feet long. This is at least twice as big as what most scientists believe was accurate. But Alten can get away with this because he is dealing with animals that no one has ever seen or studied. Who is to tell him he's wrong? And besides, who wants to read about a 25 foot long liopleuridon or a 40 foot long meg, when you can have a 76 foot monster chasing you through the ocean depths?
I would probably rank Hell's Aquarium as my second favorite book in the series, behind only The Trench, which as most other readers will agree, is hard to beat and definitely the best of the series. I did not find the character contest, where Alten awarded about 50 fans the opportunity to have their names in the book, to be too distracting, with the exception of referring to every character by their full name. And I was looking for it so I don't think most readers will find it a problem. The suspense in this books was almost on par with "The Trench," although I do feel that the lead villain could have used a little more development. I also didn't buy the romantic angle in the story. It was a little too convenient and a little too forced. Do people actually fall in love that fast? Can this guy not see he is being played? I found it very suspect until the last page of the novel, at which point I realized yes, apparently they do (in fiction novels at least).
Lastly, I only had one real problem with Hell's Aquarium, and one reason for giving this book 4 stars instead of 5. That is the absolutely awful editing. I noticed over 30 grammatical and spelling errors in this book. For a book that is not self-published, by a bestselling author, it is unforgiving to have so many mistakes. I don't understand the editing process, but did no one else read this book before it hit the presses? I have no idea how the editing process works, but if I was a publishing company, I would give the book to at least 3-4 people to read before hitting it with the "okay" stamp. How is it that I noticed so many errors and no one else did? I find it very annoying to be reading a book and see two instances within 20 pages of each other of "your" used instead of "you're." Or apostrophes used incorrectly followed by duplicate words. I noticed this same problem while reading Kronos, another book published by Variance Publishing LLC, so I am laying the blame with them. I am not obsessive about it and understand mistakes happen, but I believe a professionally-published book should have no more than one or two mistakes, not the dozens contained in Hell's Aquarium. However, I wouldn't want to hold that against Alten or prevent any future readers from enjoying what is otherwise a fun and thrilling read.