Thu
Jun 8 2017 3:00pm

Review: The Himalayan Codex by Bill Schutt & J. R. Finch

The Himalayan Codex by Bill Schutt & J. R. Finch follows zoologist and adventurer Captain R. J. MacCready as he is sent to the frozen mountain valleys of Tibet to find a creature of legend that may hold the secret to humankind's evolutionary future—or the key to its extinction.

1946. The Himalayas. In one of the most inhospitable environments in the world, zoologist R. J. MacReady—Mac—and two companions set out to explore ancient evidence of an undetermined species. After crashing their helicopter, the small group of explorers find themselves stranded in the snowy heights of this dangerous mountain range. And they’re not alone. 

Rumors of the abominable snowmen—the Yeti—have survived for centuries in this part of the world. MacReady and his team are now face to face with the reality of these rumors. Huge, organized creatures capable of building snow cities, with fur like polar bears but seeming strangely human and capable of a whistling language perfectly suited to this harsh world. MacReady suspected these creatures existed, but he finds himself hardly prepared for their actuality—or what else is out there.

The Himalayan Codex, the second novel in the R. J. MacReady series, is a result of the joint writing of Bill Schutt—a zoologist and biologist who normally dwells in the realm of non-fiction—and novelist J.R. Finch. Together, the two authors have created an adventure Indiana Jones would envy: an exploration of a mystery as old as ancient Greece complicated by the political intrigue of the post-WWII world. 

There’s enough intrigue in the main storyline to keep the pages turning, but Schutt and Finch take it one step further. The best way I have of explaining it is to compare it to the Indiana Jones movies, particularly Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Both Himalayan Codex and Last Crusade involve knowledge of ancient texts, head-on collisions with in-power political parties, and determined –ologists who are perhaps in over their heads. All good. All fun. 

The Himalayan Codex, unlike Last Crusade, makes the ancient story part of the narrative. Sure, in Last Crusade we meet the ancient knight, but we don’t even get a montage of how he wound up in the cave. Not so in Codex. 

The whole reason MacReady and crew are on this mission is due to the discovery and translation of an ancient codex (a book on papyrus) written by Pliny the Elder. (You may know him from his famous writing: Natural History.) Pliny, hoping to dodge the fickle rule of Nero, leads an expedition into the now-Himalayas. The codex describes his encounter with the Cerae—the Ancient Greek term for the snow creatures. The expedition does not go well. 

Pliny, his writings, and his travails become a secondary plotline that Shutt and Finch use to add stress and tension to the main through line. For example, take Pliny’s initial encounter with the Himalayan creatures: 

A movement along the nearest rock wall drew his attention. Ghostlike, and so exquisitely camouflaged that the Ceran must surely have been standing only a few arm-lengths in front of his face all along, it—they moved as if they had been part of the snow and ice itself, summoned suddenly alive. Pliny instinctively reached for his sword then felt a flutter in the pit of his stomach as he realized he had given it to his young aide [emphasis added].He turned to Antoninus, who was still carrying the weapon, but in the next moment his view of the boy was obscured by a warm mist accompanied by the metallic scent of blood in the air.

In the space of five heartbeats, and in a silent whirlwind of arterial spray, the Cerae burst upon the Romans.

Note the bit about how Pliny does not have a weapon—though he really, really wants one. That’s the first indication to the reader about how these creatures behave and the first big clue that weapons are a bad idea. Being privy to the bloody result of the ancient Romans going in armed, the reader feels the building suspense when MacReady and his team are confronted by the creatures … and one of the team members happens to be armed. 

Luckily, MacReady has people who are intelligent, sharp observers.

Sensing that Jerry was about to withdraw his pistol, and in what seemed to be a single continuous move, Yanni blocked the man’s right arm, grabbed the weapon, and flung it as far away as she could into the snow.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jerry cried, having acted just fast enough to stop a reflex to strike the person who had suddenly disarmed him. “Are you nuts?”

Yanni remained calm, exhibiting what Mac thought to be an equally extreme degree of self-control, considering there were four towering humanoids standing before them—their bodies covered from head to toe in long, translucent hair.

“Did you hear those shrieks when they saw that heater?” she replied quietly. 

And thus, MacReady, Yanni, and Jerry manage to avoid any arterial spraying.

By not relegating Pliny’s storyline to explanatory dialogue, the reader gets to experience the connecting lines of history. And Schutt and Finch get to develop their special creatures and add levels of tension.  

I’ve only touched on a small portion of the elements of The Himalayan Codex. There are a lot of elements left to dig into. There’s the supernatural and worldbuilding elements of the Yeti/Cerae/snow creatures, the political element of unrest between Tibet and China, the studious/scientific/nerd element of the translators in New York, and the flat-out adventure element of Mac and his team exploring the physical limits of the mountain range.

If you haven’t read the first in the R .J. MacReady series, don’t worry. Schutt and Finch give a great, brief backstory of important elements, allowing the reader to jump straight into the immediate story with no loss of character nuance. The Himalayan Codex is complete with nail-biting tension, historical intrigue, scientific curiosities, and plenty of action.  

 

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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 MagazineShimmerSkive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.

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