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

Curse of the Specter Queen (for young readers) by Jenny Elder Moke

Reviewed on: July 1, 2024


Disney-Hyperion: New York
2021 (PB)

The definition of YA (Young Adult) has become increasingly hazy—its original designation referring to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds—but now seems to have stretched to almost age 30.  With YA-designated titles like Curse of the Specter Queen, this reviewer believes that the definition could now stretch to age 75!

If a book creates sympathetic and believable protagonists who happen to struggle against the forces of Unspeakable Evil bent on the destruction of humankind—and does it in a literate and erudite fashion—then who can deny that pleasure to a, shall we say, mature reader?

At a time when much of the world was mesmerized by reports of the “King Tut” excavations conducted by Howard Carter in Egypt, the dreams of a career in archaeology were shattered for young Samantha (Sam) Knox when her father was killed in the bloody carnage of World War I.  Thanks to the efforts of lifelong friends Bennett, who is studying archaeology at the University of Chicago, and Joana Steeling, children of a wealthy Gilded Age magnate, Sam was made manager of Steeling’s Rare Antiquities in the little bucolic town of Clement, Illinois.  While it was not the life of adventure Sam had dreamed of, the bookstore did provide her with a comfortable living to help support her mother and an avenue into the world of the mind.

The delivery of a mysterious package to the bookstore provides a turning point in Sam’s life.  The package, sent from Ireland by eccentric University of Chicago archaeologist Barnaby Wallstone, contains the tattered diary of a certain Father Jacob.  Wallstone, as it happens, is Bennett Steeling’s professor at the University of Chicago, and Bennett was preparing to join the professor in Ireland to aid in the excavation of a Neolithic passage tomb in the mountains just outside Dublin that might prove to be an ancient Druid worship site.  Leaving the diary with Bennett and Joana at their family mansion, Sam returns to her bookstore only to find the cowled and threatening figure of a man who calls himself Brother Padraig, who demands the journal of Father Jacob.  A struggle ensues which results in the destruction by fire of the bookstore and Sam’s narrow escape. 

Fearing for Bennett’s safety—he still has possession of the diary—Sam and Joana convince him—browbeat mighty be a more accurate term—that they should accompany him to Ireland, along with a fellow student, Philip Montrose.  During the journey, Sam is able to de-cypher much of the tattered diary, a portion of which is coded in Ogham, the so-called Celtic Tree Alphabet.  She finds references to the “Hellfire Club,” the umbrella designation of several exclusive clubs of high society libertine men in 18th Century Britain and Ireland, as well as references to the “Spector Queen” Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of war and death, who was to bring on a war that would destroy all of humanity.

What follows is an exciting and terrifying crusade by the intrepid trio of Sam, Bennett and Joana to find and destroy the artifact that will otherwise summon the Spector Queen into 20th Century Ireland to commence her destructive reign.  The goal is clear but what is much less clear is who is behind the diabolical campaign to bring this harbinger of doom to life?  Is it the shadowy Brother Padraig and his brotherhood monks, or is it Professor Wallstone gone over to the dark side, or someone much closer to the adventurous trio of Sam, Bennett and Joana?

While Curse of the Specter Queen is a bit light on archaeology, it is a rollicking yarn with great and memorable protagonists and plenty of adventure.  Four enthusiastic trowels for this initial adventure featuring Samantha Knox and her friends.

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