Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

Back to all reviews

Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow (for young readers) by James Rollins

Reviewed on: May 1, 2010


Harper:  New York City
2010 (pb)

Some time ago I received a suggestion to occasionally review fiction for young readers that used archaeological themes.  With summer vacation almost upon us, I thought this would be a good time to give it a try.  What I will try to do on an admittedly irregular basis is review books that I think would be interesting to young readers and perhaps even their parents!  In some cases I might even suggest that a parent read the book to their child—a practice I remember with great fondness when my kids were young.

So this first foray into kid lit will be James Rollins’s Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow.  Rollins is quite well known in the action-thriller genre of adult literature, and he brings a good deal of the cliffhanger, edge-of-your-seat action found in his adult novels to this, his first book aimed at readers “ages 10 up.”  He was also selected by George Lucas to pen the novelization of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and, in fact, the opening prologue reads much like the opening scenes of an Indiana Jones movie.  Dr. Henry Bethel, Oxford University professor of archaeology and friend of American archaeologists Penelope and Richard Ransom, is fleeing bandits who are chasing him from the Montana de Huesos (the Mountain of Bones) in the Mayan lowland jungles on the Belize-Mexico border.  His friends, Penelope and Richard Ransom, have mysteriously disappeared and before dying he is able to pass on a mysterious package addressed to “Master Jacob Bartholomew Ransom, North Hampshire, Connecticut.”  The package, delivered to ten year old Jake Ransom and his older sister, Kady, contains their mother’s sketchbook, their father’s field diary and two halves of a mysterious token engraved with a Mayan glyph.

The story then picks up three years later with Jake an 8th grader at Middleton Prep and his sister Kady in high school.  They live at Ravengate Manor, the family home, with caretakers who have taken over parenting roles since the disappearance of their parents.  Jake is a slightly nerdy but very bright young man, with a deep interest in the sciences—especially archaeology and anthropology—and a propensity to be picked on by bigger football players types.  Kady is a vivacious, outgoing cheerleader with a propensity towards dating bigger football player types and a constant fear of being embarrassed by her little brother!  But both desperately miss their parents and wish more than anything for their safe return.

The plot commences when Jake and Kady receive an invitation to the grand opening of the British Museum exhibit, “Mayan Treasures of the New World,” which is an homage to the excavations conducted by Penelope and Richard Ransom sponsored by Bledsworth Sundries and Industries, Inc.   Accompanying the invitations are two airline tickets to London.

They arrive in London and are whisked away to the British Museum by the mysterious Morgan Drummond of Bledsworth Sundries.  Mysterious things begin to happen at the British Museum exhibition and when Jake finds that the two halves of the Mayan token sent to them after his parents’ disappearance fit perfectly into an artifact on display at the exact moment of a total solar eclipse, he and Kady are catapulted into a world they never dreamed of and into an adventure beyond their imaginations!

They find a land populated by what appear to be ancient Mayans, Vikings, Romans, and even Neanderthals—all living in and around the city-state of Calypsos, whose architecture is a mixture of roman villas, Viking longhouses, a medieval castle, African huts on stilts, proto-pueblo cliff dwellings, and an Egyptian obelisk.  And over the city looms a giant pyramid, topped by a statue of the Mayan feathered serpent god, Kukulcan.   If that were not enough, the surrounding countryside also harbors a T-Rex, along other relicts of the Age of Dinosaurs!

Jake and Kady are befriended by Marika, a young Mayan girl, and Pindor, a Roman boy, who take them before the Council of Elders of Calypsos, and slowly the bewildering world into which they have tumbled begins to make some crazy kind of sense, and Jake realizes that somehow or someway, these Lost Tribes (as they refer to themselves) have been wrenched out of their own times and space and brought to Calypsos—why or for what reason no one seems to know.

But it isn’t long before it becomes abundantly clear that all is not as peaceful in Calypsos as appears on the surface, for the very existence of Calypsos is threatened by Kalverum Rex—the Skull King—and his hideous minions, the Grakyls, evil winged creatures resulting from the alchemy practiced by their dark leader.  The battle for Calypsos seems to center on the presence of Jake and Kady and it is only through the bravery of the two Ransom siblings and their new found friends, Marika and Pindor, that the Skull King’s plans are foiled—at least temporarily.  During the battle with the Skull King within the confines of the Mayan pyramid, Jake finds a modern pocket watch—a watch owned by his father!  Do Jake and Kady dare hope there might be some slight hope that their parents are still alive, and that their disappearance is somehow linked to this mysterious world on the edge of Nowhere?  Perhaps the reader will find out some of the answers to these and other puzzling questions in the next volume, Jake Ransom and the Howling Sphinx!

This is an entertaining, exciting –perhaps even a bit scary for very young readers—and well written adventure novel.  The author is not at all condescending to his young readers, and in fact, expects quite a lot of them as he teases out some of the arcane secrets of Calypsos.  It also underscores the importance of friendship and shared sacrifice among friends, and in Jake and Kady we find a brother and sister who begin as conventional sibling rivals and grow to respect and love each other as they battle shoulder to shoulder—always hoping that perhaps together they might yet find their lost parents.

Four trowels for this engaging and exciting novel for young readers—of all ages!

Twenty Years in the Trenches: Archaeology in Fiction

William Gresens, longtime MVAC supporter and volunteer, has been writing reviews of archaeological fiction as MVAC’s book reviewer for twenty years.  In this interview Bill shares how he got started writing reviews for MVAC, how the genre has changed, highlights, and his thoughts looking forward. 

Bill Gresen’s Book Review 20th Anniversary

While Bill's reviews go back 20 years now, his relationship with MVAC goes back more than twice that long! The reviews capture some of the things we enjoy most about Bill-- he's perceptive, methodical, a clear thinker, and a whole lot of fun! We look forward to this relationship--and Bill's reviews!--continuing for many years to come.

The March 2021 review marks the 20th anniversary of reviews of archaeological fiction.  It has been my pleasure and great fun to while away the hours reading these books—for the most part, at least—and writing the reviews!  My thanks to MVAC allowing me to prattle on and I look forward to the years ahead.

Bill Gresens