Somewhere forgotten in an archive, or guarded by a secret society, or suppressed by the powers that be, lies an item that contains the secret of life, the universe, and everything—a direct plug-and-play download from the mind of God. This premise has fueled a truckload of airport-waiting-room bestsellers over the past decade, but the genre has finally grown out of its adolescent Indiana-Jones-vs.-the-Illuminati breathlessness and produced some stunning literature. The latest entry tones down the fantastic elements of its protagonist's globetrotting quest, and weaves a melancholy tale about extinction and survival, peppered by mythological beasts.

Xeno, a second-generation immigrant growing up in the Bronx, clings to his grandmother's tales of shape-shifting humans and weird creatures to distract him from his mostly-absent father. When a high-school teacher tells him about the Caravan Bestiary, a legendary illuminated manuscript listing the animals Noah refused to allow on the ark, he begins a search for the long-lost book. Ancient scholars believed that the universal bestiary God wrote at creation, when combined with the Bible, would constitute the sum of all knowledge, and the Caravan Bestiary represents the largest missing piece of this divine work. On and off, through the turbulent '60s, in the Vietnam War, and through years of research in European libraries, Xeno tracks the book in hopes of fixing his metamorphosing past into a recognizable shape, however grotesque the combination of animal elements might turn out to be.

The phoenix is the book's central symbol—the star of a cyclical tale of destruction and rebirth without conflict. Christopher gives us a pure, poignant search for identity without villains or trumped-up suspense, and a hero sleepwalking through history with his eyes fixed on the distant past. The story is more about the mystery of broken relationships than about chimeras and centaurs. Somewhere, Xeno hopes, all the pieces that go missing in a life are collected, preserved, and celebrated. At the novel's quiet, haunting close, Xeno promises to keep the secret he's learned, only to find that the person who revealed it to him doesn't care whether it becomes known. The genre's Gnostic premise is turned on its head, without fanfare and even with a sense of regret. The world's mysteries don't need solving—only the self's.