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!

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The Pandora Room by Christopher Golden

Reviewed on: April 1, 2021


St. Martin’s Press:  New York
2019 (HC)

Greek mythology comes to deadly and frightening life in Christopher Golden’s latest archaeo-political thriller, The Pandora Room. The story opens as Sophie Durand, a tough, dedicated archaeologist, and her crew are wrapping up a major excavation near the town of Amadiya in the Kurdistan region of war-torn northern Iraq.  The ancient site, dubbed Derveyi, or “Beneath” by the archaeologists, is a subterranean city—a warren of rooms, chambers, and tunnels—that has yielded a rich trove of artifacts and archaeological data.  The project is international in scope, underwritten by the European Union, and featuring crew members hailing from the U.S., Turkey, and a variety of Western European countries.

Just as the project is to close down, an astounding—and literal—breakthrough occurs as a series of heretofore undiscovered chambers are revealed when a wall is accidentally breeched.  As project director, Sophie heroically offers to explore the exposed rooms by wriggling through the small fissure in the wall.  What she finds in an inner chamber is even more astounding:  an urn sits atop an altar with ancient inscriptions that appear to be earliest rendition of the Pandora myth.  Some seven hundred years before Christ, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote the Theogony, a genealogy of the gods that included the story of Pandora, sometimes known as Anesidora, was the first human woman created at the instruction of Zeus, who was given an urn, often mis-translated as a “box,” that contained all the evils and illnesses of humanity.  In Hesiod’s telling, Pandora’s insatiable curiosity drives her to open the urn, releasing all the evils that have beset humankind ever since.  It is generally accepted that Hesiod’s story is an amalgam of the many versions of the Pandora myth, but the inscription in the hidden room tells a new and disturbing interpretation of the ancient story:  Pandora had a sister, Anesidora, and both were given urns—one containing all the evils of pain, disease and hatred, and the other containing goodness and healing.  One urn remained on the altar—which one was it?

At this juncture in the story, Ben Walker, the main protagonist in Golden’s 2016 thriller, Ararat, enters the picture with a small crew of colleagues to investigate the Pandora room.  Ostensibly a representative of the National Science Foundation, he is, in reality, an agent of DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  His standing orders are to investigate anomalies like the Pandora urn, assess the situation and bring the device to DARPA for further study as a potential addition to the US arsenal, or destroy it if it’s too dangerous for any entity to possess.

The situation quickly descends into chaos and carnage as jihadist militants mustering under the banner of the New Caliphate, a coalition of fragments of various terrorist groups, including ISIS, attack the Derveyi site.  Virtually at the same time, the archaeologists below ground begin to fall victim to terrifying hallucinations of ghostly apparitions committing heinous acts of savagery and barbarism—or are they hallucinations?-- and a variety of plague-like symptoms.  There can no longer be a question whether the contents of the urn are benign or lethal.

What follows is an extended narrative of a desperate and claustrophobic race through the underground tunnels and catacombs of Derveyi as the dwindling number of archaeologists and Ben Walker’s crew valiantly attempt to keep the Pandora urn out of the hands of the advancing jihadis.  This narrative, which unfortunately begins to fall into the ODTAA (One Damn Thing after Another) style of storytelling, does become repetitive.  But again, like last month’s reviewed book, the author has created some very compelling protagonists and presents an intriguing story line.  In fact, I hope he brings back archaeologist Sophie Durand in future novels; she is an exquisite heroine by any measure.  But the full execution of the book’s plot line and its rather abrupt denouement do not live up to its imaginative premise and its excellent protagonists. 

Two trowels for The Pandora Room and the anticipation that author Golden’s next thriller will return to the solid effort of the earlier Ararat.  

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