Preston’s Lost City of the Monkey God

I’ve read a number of thrillers by Douglas Preston (most but not all written with Lincoln Child), and that’s what I expected to find when I plucked The Lost City of the Monkey God off the New Books kiosk at Half Price Books the other day.

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lost-city-of-the-monkey-godSo I was surprised to spot, in small letters on the cover, the phrase “A True Story,” and to learn that when Preston is not writing thrillers, he writes on scientific topics for publications from National Geographic to The New Yorker, and has written half a dozen previous nonfiction books.

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The Lost City of the Monkey God is, in fact, the tale of the search for a long rumored, and even longer abandoned, city deep in the nearly impenetrable mountainous rain forest of Honduras. Preston first heard the legend of the “White City” (Ciudad Blanca) some twenty years ago, met some of the people most interested in it, and finally became a member of the 2015 expedition which located a vast and previously unknown ruin in the heart of the rain forest.

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One reason (besides the title) I couldn’t resist the book is that I have a long-unused degree in anthropology and archeology. I haven’t kept up with the field (and Central America was never my specialty), so I was fascinated by new techniques like lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) allowing aerial surveys with laser capability to penetrate the thick rain forest cover.

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But even with lidar, nothing comes easy in this tale of exploration. Preston covers the long history of the fabled Lost City and several previous attempts to locate it (some serious and at least one outright fraud) before he gets to the 2015 expedition, the first to enter the valley, accessible only by helicopter, since it was abandoned by its inhabitants several centuries ago.

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The valley, known as Target 1, is still inhabited, though, by hordes of spider monkeys, fer-de-lance & coral snakes, and countless insects, most of which live to bite. (These make north Florida digs infested with mosquitoes, chiggers, red ants, ticks, and the occasional harmless snake sound like picnics.) But the lidar didn’t lie—the expedition finds a huge site. The acidic rain forest soil has destroyed all organic remains, but there are earthworks and plazas everywhere, as well as a stunning collection of stone and ceramic artifacts. Preston is clearly on Cloud Nine, despite the sand flies and snakes, steamy heat, and nearly constant rain.

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Preston’s recounting of the aftermath of the first expedition is just as interesting, covering topics from tropical diseases to the collapse of civilizations (no doubt caused at least in part by the non-tropical diseases carried in by the Spanish explorers) to the history and culture of Honduras. Preston’s theories about the abandonment of the city are thought provoking, and a bit frightening. The combination of climate change and tropical disease is not to be taken lightly.

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The Lost City of the Monkey God is currently on the best-seller list, and deservedly so. But I’d still love to read the thriller version, in which intrepid explorers find the city cut off from the modern world but fully populated by the Monkey God’s very scary devotees. I love lost world stories, fact or fiction.

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