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Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God

Thriller writer Douglas Preston proves that truth is as exciting as fiction in his gripping memoir of a search for a fabled lost city.

The Lost City of the Monkey God—Douglas Preston, 2017. Rating: 4/5

In 2012, cinematographer Steve Elkins has the unconventional idea of using airborne LiDAR—Light Detection and Ranging—to hopefully pinpoint the location of Cuidad Blanca, the “White City” or “Lost City of the Monkey God” deep in the Honduran rainforest. Elkins’s gamble pays off: the LiDAR reveals evidence of man-made ruins, created by a previously unknown culture. Douglas Preston, in his capacity of journalist, is along for the preliminary LiDAR flights.

After years of battling red tape, in 2015 Elkins secures the blessing (and permits) from the Honduran president to mount a ground expedition. Elkins, along with his film crew, team of archaeologists and specialists, and Preston embark on a rugged trip into the dangerous, largely unexplored Mosquitia region of Honduras. A tough ex-SAS team with decades of jungle training goes along for protection—a necessity in a region where plants, animals, insects, and the weather can all be deadly, and that’s in addition to the human threats posed by drug cartels in neighboring cities. What the group discovers changes adds important new information to humankind’s historical understanding of indigenous peoples in the new world. Their discovery ignites academic controversy and seems to wake an ancient curse: multiple expedition members, including Preston, fall victim to a puzzling disease.

Preston, perhaps best known for collaborative novels with Lincoln Child, is also an acclaimed journalist, having contributed to both National Geographic and the New Yorker. His account of the search for Cuidad Blanca is narrative nonfiction at its best: fast-paced, terrifically exciting, and powerfully thought-provoking. Preston takes a deep dive into the history of the new world and the devastating effect of old world exploration. He explores contemporary technology, epidemiology, and Honduran politics. Readers get a dramatic first-hand account of natural wonders of the rainforest, like a near encounter with the terrifying fer-de-lance, one of the world’s most venomous snakes. Preston seamlessly weaves these many threads into what is both a thrilling adventure and a sobering reflection on the effects of anthropogenic activities worldwide.