Tor, 2004, 404 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34629-X
Over the years, Douglas Preston has established himself as one-half of the Preston/Child team behind such preposterously entertaining thrillers as Relic, The Ice Limit or The Cabinet of Curiosities. But he also has a number of solo works on his shelves, The Codex being the latest of them.
Fans of the Preston/Child thrillers will certainly feel right at ease as soon as the premise of the novel is explained. From the moment the three mismatched Broadbent brothers are summoned to their rich father’s side for a mysterious meeting, our interest is sparked: why is said father missing, his house empty of its treasure trove of valuables? It takes only one videotape to clear up the mystery and start the adventure: As a team-building exercise, their dying father has squirrelled away most of his fortune and hidden it somewhere in the world, in what will either become their inheritance or his tomb. Their only chance to retrieve the vast family fortune is to unite their forces and go treasure-hunting.
A more straightforward thriller would see the three brothers shake hands on the deal and set off for primitive countries. But such a thriller would last about fifty pages and please no one. So the brothers all decide to forget about it and return to their lives. But the idea stays on, and it doesn’t take much time for all three brothers to either initiate the chase or be manipulated into following their father’s trace. They won’t go alone, of course, and it’s their companions that will determine their chance of success. From that moment, it’s the good, the bad and the clueless: Tom is the no-nonsense veterinarian reluctantly pressed into service by a young woman and the promise of invaluable medicinal information, the “codex” of the title. Philip is a haughty academic who soon finds himself way over his head as the quasi-prisoner of the private investigator he hired to help things along. Meanwhile, placid third brother Vernon bumbles from one adventure to another as his guru seems unusually concerned about the One Hundred Million Dollars! at the end of the chase. The three brothers separately set out to get the treasure, but they may not be alone in their quest…
The cover blurb on the cover of the paperback edition bills the novel as “Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Amazing Race!” and indeed, the novel is never as gripping as when the initial pieces are placed on the table, and we are promised a vast chase across the jungle as different teams all race toward the treasure. It’s a fabulous hook for a thriller, and for a while it looks as if The Codex is destined for great things.
What follows is not exactly a disappointment, but it’s not quite up to the initial expectations. As all adventurers make their way deeper in the jungle, the usual adventure thrills are all here to be found: natural dangers, isolated tribes, character infighting and so on. Making everything a bit better are a few surprises to shake things up, and a number of amusing supporting characters. But the teams soon converge and end up with the classical good-versus-evil face-off, with too much book left to string along. The last act really stretches things a bit past the point of comfortable disbelief, creating a nagging sense of let-down.
It doesn’t help that some subplots never achieve liftoff. A lengthy stateside digression involving a CEO is notable for an atypical ending, but it seems superfluous in the context of this novel. Worse: its interaction with another subplot where a troublesome love interest is morally dismissed smacks of cheap plotting.
Nevertheless, The Codex is still a lot of fun, especially if it’s been a while since your last jungle-bound adventure. As for myself, I ended up reading it in unfortunate proximity with James Rollin’s earlier Amazonia (which sports a Douglas Preston blurb on its jacket, interestingly enough) and that may just be too many jungle thrillers to handle in the same fortnight.
Taken on its own, though, The Codex is a serviceable thriller: exactly the kind of page-turner that’s a delight to read on the bus or on the beach. Its easy fluency with genre elements augurs well for Preston’s solo career. Indeed, back-cover indications show that Tom Broadbent makes a return appearance in Tyrannosaur Canyon. We’ll see about that.
[June 2006: What about James Rollin’s Amazonia, you ask? Well, here’s the paradox: Even if Rollin’s curiously similar book (down to paternal matters) has a grander scope and a better pacing, it’s not quite so much fun to read as The Codex. Rollin’s characters are a bit flatter, and if his ideas are generally more wild and interesting than Preston’s, he is seldom as slick as his colleague in delivering the expected adventure. On the other hand, Amazonia is one of Rollin’s top books so far, proving that he’s getting better with time.]