I had just turned 16 when the first Tomb Raider was released and I remember how I was instantly wowed by the game’s athletic, fiercely independent, and intelligent female protagonist. As a tomboyish bookworm, I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton novels, encyclopaedias, and any books on Ancient Egypt I could get my hands on at our small, under-stocked local library. And despite the countless hours I spent reading, I never seemed to come across any female characters I could truly identify with or admire.
That was until Lara Croft came along and swan-dived into my life. Granted, she seemed the complete opposite of me in many ways and her archaeological methods left a lot to be desired but I was drawn to her sheer determination, confidence, and curiosity for all things ancient. Her character flaws and trigger-happy nature notwithstanding, she became something of a role model to me and one I still look up to nearly two decades later.
Recently, I’ve come to know another adventurous and inquisitive young woman, one who reminded me a lot of myself as a teen. That young lady is Samantha Sutton, the 12-year-old protagonist of Jordan Jacobs’ series of archaeology adventure novels. Jordan contacted me last November to suggest I write a feature on the Pillager of the Past video game series in his Samantha Sutton novels and very generously sent me copies of the first two novels, Samantha Sutton & the Labyrinth of Lies and Samantha Sutton & the Winter of the Warrior Queen for review.
At this point, I would like to state that although the books were sent to me free of charge, I have not been paid to write this review or the Pillager of the Past article that will be published later this month. The following is my own personal – and hopefully unbiased – review of the two novels.
The Samantha Sutton series is a series of archaeological mystery novels aimed at the tween demographic and follows the adventures of Samantha, a timid aspiring archaeologist, her teenage gamer brother Evan, and their archaeologist uncle Jay as they assist at excavation sites in Peru and England, where they unwittingly find themselves caught up in a web of mystery, mayhem, and fiery feuds. The first novel, Labyrinth of Lies, is set in the pre-Inca site of Chavín de Huántar in northern Peru and sees the shy but strong-willed Samantha using her wits and insatiable curiosity to find out why excavated artefacts have started going missing and stop the culprit before he or she causes irreparable damage to the site or her uncle’s career.
The second novel, Winter of the Warrior Queen, is set in Cambridge, England, and sees Samantha race against time to determine whether her uncle’s team have discovered the long-lost fortress of Queen Boudicca, the legendary Iceni queen who led a major uprising against the Romans in the 1st century AD, and save the site from demolition.
When writing the novels, Jordan Jacobs, an archaeologist and incurable globetrotter, drew on his own experiences and specialist knowledge to bring Samantha’s world to life. His passion for the past really shines through each page and he skilfully weaves cultural references, historical events, and archaeological research into the narrative, drawing the reader into the story through his vivid descriptions of the sites and surroundings. What better way to escape the mundanities of a daily commute than imagining yourself in a dust-filled chamber, unearthing centuries-old artefacts in a faraway land?
But what impressed me the most was his dedication to introducing younger readers to the practice of scientific archaeology – a welcome change from the treasure-hunting antics of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft – and highlighting the various practical and ethical issues raised in the excavation of ancient sites, e.g. the excavation of human remains; the looting of archaeological sites; the importance of archaeological sites to local economies; the treatment and storage of excavated finds; the distorted depiction of archaeology in popular culture; the ongoing conflict between archaeologists and metal detectorists in some countries; and the impact of urban development on local heritage.
Although the books are aimed at the tween audience, there’s little reason why adults can’t enjoy these novels. After all, the Harry Potter books had a sizeable adult readership and there’s nothing wrong with escaping the realities and problems of adult life once in a while. Some reviewers have pointed to plot holes in the narrative and criticised the novels for a lack of genuine adrenaline-pumping action scenes but if you’re looking for fast-paced action and archaeological hi-jinks, you’re better off sticking with the Indiana Jones films. The Samantha Sutton novels take the slow and steady approach when it comes to storytelling (much like an archaeological excavation) and allow readers the time and freedom to piece together the clues scattered throughout the novels’ 300-or-so pages. The fragments of Samantha’s illustrated fieldwork diary were a nice touch as they gave an insight into the inner workings of her curious mind and detailed some of the key historical events relevant to the plot.
My only real gripes with the books were the slightly stereotypical depictions of some of the secondary characters; the British characters all seem to be a tad eccentric and a little obsessed with age-old traditions. Another concern was the insinuation that the British government encourages metal detecting and the looting of potential archaeological sites. While I feel more could and should be done to prevent hobbyists from purposefully or inadvertently destroying valuable archaeological context, detectorists are required to abide by certain rules and regulations and those who fall foul of the law can be heavily fined or even jailed for digging at unauthorised sites. The takeaway impressions I got from reading Warrior Queen were that a) metal detecting was rampant and b) the UK government does little to actively discourage it, both of which are blown out of proportion.
As for Samantha herself, she struck me as an ideal role model that young women – and men – could look up to: inquisitive, resourceful, well-read, sceptical, determined, loyal to her friends and family, courageous, tenacious, and deeply passionate about archaeology and the protection of ancient sites. While my 12-year-old self lacked her self-discipline and tenacity, I could easily identify with the timid, serious, studious Samantha. Reading these novels brought back a flood of memories from my younger years: the countless hours spent in my room, reading up on Egyptian art, Greek mythology, Chinese dynasties, and Pre-Columbian cultures; my first visit to the British Museum; and the disappointment I felt when teachers successfully dissuaded me from pursuing a career in archaeology (a decision I regret to this day). There’s no doubt that had these books been around when I was Samantha’s age, my mum would have taken to calling me “Archaeo Kid”, much to my chagrin. 😉
So, can I recommend these novels? Absolutely, especially to younger readers who are curious about the world around them and show an interest in archaeology. The novels are educational, well-written, entertaining, and will certainly encourage readers to think critically about how we interpret the past and what measures we should all take to protect our shared world heritage. While I feel the Samantha Sutton series may appeal more to a female readership, there is nothing inherently girly about the novels. The Sutton family’s adventures will appeal to anyone who has a thirst for archaeological adventure, regardless of their age or gender.
Here’s to Samantha’s next adventure, Samantha Sutton & the Temple of Traitors!
** Tomb Raider fans may enjoy the next instalment of the Samantha Sutton series, which will see the plucky heroine exploring the ancient Khmer ruins of Cambodia while her lovable, but sometimes naive uncle takes on a new position: that of an archaeology consultant on the set of the movie adaptation of Evan’s favourite video game series, Pillager of the Past.
It turns out that Mr Jacobs is a Tomb Raider fan and he’ll be tackling the way archaeology is depicted in the entertainment industry in his upcoming novel.