The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world’s densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn’t until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
I remember that I was at work in 2015 when I first saw the story of Douglas Preston’s trip into the jungle of Honduras to find a real lost city come up on Facebook. I just remember being in awe that there are still lost cities left to find and that somehow one of my favorite authors got to go along on the journey to find one. To me, that was complete author goals: to not only be a best-selling novelist, but to also have the opportunity to go on such an incredible journey. Of course, now having read The Lost City of the Monkey God, I am 100% certain I would be bitten by a fer de lance within 0.5 seconds of walking into the jungle, but that’s not going to stop me from romanticizing the idea of being an author/adventurer.
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have been two of my favorite authors for a long time now. I think I must have been 14 or 15 when I read Relic, the first book in the Special Agent Pendergast series. Since then I’ve read nearly all of their other books, including their individual works. It’s actually surprising to me that I waited long enough to buy this book that it’s now come out in paperback. But it worked out well because it was on the bestseller shelf at the airport in Las Vegas when I needed to buy a book.
For those of you who are avid fiction readers, rest assured this is one of those works on non-fiction that proves to be as interesting and engaging as a work of fiction. Preston’s storyteller’s gift is on full display in The Lost City of the Monkey God as he tells the story of The White City in five parts: quest, discovery, exploration, aftermath, and my favorite section of the whole book, connecting past to future.
On its surface, this book is about the discovery and exploration of one of the few untouched places remaining on Earth. Preston and a team of scientists journey into the Honduran rainforest to find a city that has been lost from time for over five hundred years. But, as all good storytellers know, finding the lost city is only part of the story. The more interesting part of the story is determining why the city was abandoned at all and left to the march of time.
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s just say that that line of reasoning has profound and chilling impacts for our modern society. Especially as, at the time I’m writing this blog post, the President seems more interested in fighting with professional athletes over Twitter than helping the people in the US territory of Puerto Rico.
I have not read read either of these, but I suspect if you enjoyed either of Jared Diamond’s books, Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse, you will enjoy The Lost City of the Monkey God. Both were referenced in the book and as both have long been on my TBR list, I can safely say this book will appeal to Diamond fans.
And I would be remiss if I closed this review without mentioning the “horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease” that Preston and others on the trip contracted in the jungle. While not as frightening as the way ebola is depicted in The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, the diseased that Preston et al picked up is almost more terrifying because it’s another example of how looking to the past can have frightening implications for our future.