The Pandora Room by Christopher Golden
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press | Release Date: April 23, 2019 | Pages: 313 pages
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Pandora Room, Christopher Golden’s follow-up to his Bram Stoker Award-winning novel Ararat, sees Ben Walker returning for more supernatural archeological shenanigans and cave-based craziness.
In the book’s opening moments, Sophie Durand discovers she and her team are being followed during a trip into town for supplies. It’s a small leap in logic to realize that whoever is watching her must want whatever is buried in the subterranean city recently uncovered in Northern Iraq. Not until they discover a hidden chamber does Sophie realize what mysterious find is so prized. Her dig site isn’t home to just the remains of an ancient city, but to an ancient artifact straight out of myth — Pandora’s Box. Or, more accurately, Pandora’s jar. Enter “weird shit” expert Ben Walker, his UN counterpart and lover Seong Kim, and a violent ISIS raid to seize the jar and its ancient deadly contents.
I recall Ararat being a bit of a slow-burn with Golden ratcheting up the tension by increments and lulling us into that book’s horror element by degrees, until everything finally boils over into all-out insanity. The Pandora Room, however, wastes little time dropping us into the thick of things. Golden brings in the tension right from the start as Sophie is followed by a pair of mustached men, leading to a car chase through the desert and an encounter with Allied military forces protecting her archaeological dig site. Although, as with Ararat, Golden reins in the horror elements for a good long while, but there’s certainly no shortage of action. Once the supernatural aspects come into play and it’s (mostly kinda sorta) clear that Sophie, Walker, and company are not alone in this underground city, The Pandora Room becomes a frenetic sequence of chases, gunplay, double crosses, and all sorts of other associated mayhem.
The Pandora Room is a worthy sequel to Ararat, but like most sequels and series it fairly closely adheres to the original’s formula for success. It’s kind of like Die Hard 2 in terms of sequels. To borrow from John McClane, there’s another cave, another ancient evil…how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice? It’s forgivable, of course, simply because of how enjoyable it is, but it does tread heavily on familiar ground already covered in the prior book. Golden injects just enough freshness to keep the formula alive, gives us an extreme landscape to set it all in that’s the polar opposite of Ararat’s freezing, high-altitude mountain cave, and seriously ups the ante in terms of threat levels and deadly serious dangers from both inside the subterranean city and the jihadist-filled desert above. The Pandora Room feels familiar, but there’s enough unknowns lurking about the edges to make the endeavor welcome. There’s also some neat teases into Walker’s past unseen adventures that I would love to see fleshed out at some point, particularly his time in Guatemala, and a brief detour to the Arctic that has plenty of story potential and horrific implications to fill a future novel (book 3, perhaps, Mr. Golden? Please?)
Books like Ararat and The Pandora Room hit a particular sweet spot for me, and Golden has a done a wonderful job of following in the footsteps of authors like James Rollins. Turning to the ancient world and historical myths made real is an endlessly fascinating realm to mine for present-day fiction, and the implications of what ancient evils could be mishandled in the present provides all sorts of harrowing horror. While Rollins trends more toward the high-tech aspects of ancient history/modern military thrillers, Golden puts in a sweet spin all his own by taking similar conceits and running them through the filter of horror and supernatural terrors, and with plenty of run-and-gun vim and verve. Basically, if you dig Rollins’s Sigma Force books or are maybe looking for something a little fresher than that long-running series, the two (thus far) Ben Walker books are a natural pick up. The Pandora Room is meaty, scary, and has enough potential what if? terrors to keep you up late into the night worrying about ancient evils and their possible weaponization. It’s not exactly a feel good read, but it sure is damn well riveting.