"The Rise of the Snake Goddess"| Reviewed by Rachel Bolte
A teenage version of “Indiana Jones” with Greek mythology and strong female characters fighting the patriarchy? Both are on display in a series by Jenny Elder Moke, the first installment, "Curse of the Specter Queen" and more recently "The Rise of the Snake Goddess."
Samantha Knox is the main character in both. In "Curse" she's has a rough six months. Samantha, her best friend Joana and childhood crush-turned-boyfriend Bennet, defeated a centuries-old evil cult deep in the Irish forest.
You would think that matriculating at the University of Chicago would give her a break—after all, it should be the place where her passion for archaeology, cryptic puzzles, and long intellectual conversations thrives. (The University of Chicago connection is another nod to Indiana Jones: it’s where he went to school—and where I’m attending this fall!)
But the University of Chicago is not an academic haven for her: even though she makes top of her class, she’s passed over for a position at a summer field school in Greece. According to Professor Atchinson, “her kind” (female and not part of the nouveau riche of the 1920’s), do not belong at the university or in the field.
Defeated, Sam happens upon a letter addressed to Professor Wallstone (Bennet’s mentor, currently on leave from his teaching position at the University, being possessed by a malevolent Irish goddess will do a number on you).
It is a desperate plea for help protecting a breakthrough archaeological find just miles away from the field school Sam should be a part of. This is her chance: when it's her name in the history books and newspapers all her doubters and naysayers will have to recognize that she’s an archaeologist in her own right.
Off to Greece she goes, with Jo and Bennet in tow. Immediately entangled in the high-stakes pursuit of a mythological golden girdle, the trio face every variety of treasure-hunting obstacle: earthquakes, shady relic dealers, angry snake goddesses, faltering confidence in themselves and the others, and (much to up-and-coming socialite Joana’s dismay) caves full of stagnant water and algae that will ruin your new patent leather pumps. It’s a race against time to save the tiny island home to these archaeological treasures, their friendships, and their own lives.
Normally, it’s the sophomore book in a series that struggles, but that is not the case for “Rise of the Snake Goddess.” It kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time, eager to follow the twists and turns of the plot (it’s fair to say they’re labyrinthine, even if it is just because they end up in the literal Labyrinth!). The friendship between Sam and Jo was a highlight. Though both adventurous, Sam’s contemplative nature paired with Jo’s impulsiveness made for some enjoyable banter.
Writing a book rooted in Greek mythology is a Herculean task; after all, it’s been done so well many times before.
Moke keeps her story unique by incorporating lesser known interpretations of common myths and centering the story around her characters, so while the book hit some familiar notes, it still felt original and engaging.
Sam’s struggle with sexism and classism felt authentic; I was indignant on her behalf (and thankful that the University of Chicago has since become an institution comprised of learners from all walks of life). A major source of tension in the book comes from Bennet’s lack of understanding—early on he agrees with the unfair treatment Sam and Joana receive—but his character evolves into an advocate and supporter in a natural arc.
The novel also addresses the darker aspects of historical archaeological practices. False relics, fierce competition between archaeological teams, auctions of priceless artifacts for personal use, the often destructive methods researchers used to excavate sites and obtain artifacts: these all cast a shadow on a science that has informed so much of what we know about the past.
I’ll admit I’m partial to books with an “Indiana Jones” vibe (especially ones set at University of Chicago and in Greece), but “Rise of the Snake Goddess” was a truly enjoyable read. It’s an action-adventure escape, but one that touches on some heavier subjects, which make it even more of a page-turner!
If this book sounds right up your alley, you might also like”Lady Rogue” by Jenn Bennett, “Daughter of Sparta” by Claire Andrews, “Six Crimson Cranes,” by Elizabeth Lim, “Circe” by Madeline Miller. They’re all inspired by mythology, often including an adventurous twist and have incredibly strong female leads. They’ll certainly keep you busy until the next installment in Samantha Knox’s saga is released!