Zoe Calder has always been an outsider. Stashed away in boarding schools since her parents died, Zoe buries herself in the study of ancient worlds. Her greatest thrill is spending her summers with her archeologist aunt and uncle on digs around the world. And one day, while investigating a newly unearthed temple in Crete, Zoe discovers a luminous artifact that transports her to ancient Greece.I tried really, really hard to like this book. I wanted to, I wanted to so badly. Around the point where our heroine, Zoe, was using her newly-discovered powers to single-handedly take down the Hydra, I found myself thinking, Oh my God, this is what The Goddess Test should have been. Hallelujah, someone answered my prayers. I was excited – here is a book about a modern girl, who is told that she has to face a series of actual life-or-death trials to maybe become a god or something, IDK, but look a HYDRA! And sure, there’s a boy and insta!love, but she doesn’t need his saving. In fact, she tells him to book it when she thinks there may be danger. And sure, there are some narrative and coherency issues, but I can muscle through those if this turns out to be The Goddess Test that I’ve been waiting for.
As Zoe quickly learns, the Olympian Gods are real, living people – humans with mysterious powers… Powers that Zoe quickly realizes she has come to possess, as well. However, when the people of ancient Greece mistake Zoe for an Olympian, the Gods must restore the balance of the ancient world… No matter what.
Zoe is forced to play a confusing and dangerous game as Hera rallies the gods against her – all except for Zeus, the beautiful, winged young god who risks everything to save her.
Out of time and out of her element, teenager Zoe Calder finds herself in ancient Greece, battling against the power of the Olympians and the vengeance of a scorned goddess – all for the strange and mysterious boy she has come to love.
…and then Zoe had finished the trials, and we were only halfway through the book, and things kinda went downhill from there.
But to avoid getting…well, overly rant-y, we’re going to look at this in terms of the story. As the summary above suggests, The Dig follows Zoe, a girl who travels to Greece for the summer to assist on her aunt and uncle’s archeological dig. Once there, she intentionally wanders off on her first day to explore, and ends up in a room with a giant iPhone mounted on the wall. Except, of course, it’s not an iPhone, just some sort of doorway that inexplicably looks like an iPhone, and – again, inexplicably – transports Zoe thousands of years in the past, to ancient Greece. There, she discovers a new-found ability to manipulate the earth, which gets her mistaken for a god.
Yes, she was transported back in time by a not-iPhone. And no, it doesn’t really make any sense, nor do we ever get any explanation whatsoever as to why it looked like that, or why Zoe traveled back in time in the first place. But that didn’t bother me very much, because let’s be honest, any reasoning we get is just going to be an excuse. The author wanted to set a modern story in ancient Greece, it sounded fun, and the rest is just window dressing. Of all the as-yet-unfulfilled plot holes, that concerned me the least.
Plot hole that did bug me a bit? The language. Zoe speaks Greek, I get that, but she mentions briefly that the people she encounters in this ancient era are speaking a much older version of Greek than the one she understands. Her first few conversations are pretty rocky, coming down to awkward one-word exchanges…and then that issue just sort of disappears. Her conversations with every other important character is flawless, natural, to the point that I seriously wondered, “Did I miss some scene where they said that everyone started speaking English?”
I know that language is another one of those time-travel details that gets excused away, but after the initial shock, there’s not even an attempt made here at any sort of communication difficulties or “olde” speak. Characters are only confused by the most obvious technological references (movies, Facebook), and many utilize modern idioms and slang. My personal favorite example of this is probably the way the goddess Hera speaks like the teen queen she’s supposed to be, passive-aggressively insulting Zoe’s clothes and condescendingly calling her “sweetie” and “dear”. Does ancient Greek even have an equivalent to those words, with the same kind of catty connotations? And if it did, would Zoe understand it? Dialect is a tricky thing. Ask anyone who’s taken a high-school Spanish class and then tried to use it in Mexico.
Then there’s Zoe. As far as protagonists go, she kinda gave me trouble from the start. While her characterization is fairly typical for heroines of the YA genre – a Pretty-Ugly loner who doesn’t feel she “fits in” with other girls her age – we’re blatantly and repeatedly told that this is what Zoe is from the start. By Zoe. Without getting the chance to suss it out for ourselves. It gets old, fast, and gives her a serious likability problem.
I’ve said it before, but it’s incredibly irritating when otherwise potentially likable characters feel the need to drone on and on about how much they don’t fit in with other people, and doubly so when they do it with a haughty, condescending attitude. According to Zoe, she isn’t like other girls, you see, because other girls are vapid bimbos only concerned with things like Gossip Girl and boys and makeup and celebrities, where as our heroine is sooooooo much better, because she’s interested in important and deep things like archaeology.
URGH. This really is the single most unlikable attitude a heroine can have, and I really can’t tell if Hart is trying to portray this as Zoe’s rationalization for isolating herself from everyone, or if she’s honestly trying to capture and express the feelings of neglected bookworms and nerds and teenagers outside the mainstream. Either way, it’s incredibly annoying. It turned me off of Zoe’s character almost instantly, and the way the plot ultimately ended up going only exacerbated the problem for me.
Fortunately, Zoe’s relatively decent sense of humor kept me from wanting to continuously strangle her. She generally reacts to her situation like a normal teenager – sarcasm, fear, despair – and you can relate to her sense of displacement. Her likability issue flares mostly when she has time to reflect on her life at home, so when she’s kept otherwise occupied by the plot and other characters, Zoe is generally a tolerable character. Unfortunately, once we hit the romance portion of the book, her actions become a little less relatable.
In a bid to get back to her own time, Zoe is told to seek out the Oracle – and of course, she meets a boy along the way. Almost immediately, Zoe’s attraction to the boy begins to detract her from her quest to get home. This makes no kind of sense to me. I’m sorry, I don’t care how cute this guy is or how much you feel you connect to him, who in their RIGHT MIND lets a boy distract them from escaping the wrong TIME PERIOD. No. The wrong city, sure. Country? Maybe. But time period? I don’t buy it, not even from the geekiest of archaeology-nerd teenagers. That’s just one of those situations where the pure terror at being stuck in we-don’t-even-have-indoor-plumbing-1000-BC overrides everything, even the possibility of getting laid.
Which is why I also don’t buy the plot-extending contrivance of Zoe following her nymph friend’s advice to not let anyone know that she’s from a different time. LIKE HELL. I mean, if they’re not burning you as a witch for being able to control the earth, chances are it’s not going to be any worse if you explain that you come from the future. Plus, the more people who know you don’t belong here, the greater the chance you find someone who knows how to undo it. It seems like common sense – or at least, desperate, inexplicably trapped-in-the-past sense. Thus, Zoe’s decision not to do that seemed more transparently like a contrivance to keep the plot from resolving too quickly.
At any rate, after meeting and being briefly detoured by the obligatory love interest, Zoe makes it to the Oracle. In true Oracle fashion, the woman tells her what to do without telling her why. In this case, Zoe is told to ascend the nearby Mount Olympus, completing trials along the way, because woooEEEEoooo destiny.
And that brings us to the trials, probably the best part in the book, simply because there are lots of cool action scenes (do want) and Zoe is really allowed to shine in them (YES). Her first test requires her to defeat a Hydra, which must be a traditional Greek cherry-popping monster or something, because it seems like it’s always the first monster every aspiring hero fights. Anyway, Zoe not only decides – and manages – to defeat the monster on her own, but is allowed by the author to do so without any interference, despite the availability of a handsome, powerful love interest.
This is ridiculously rare in paranormal romance and even urban fantasy, so I really praise Hart for writing her main couple as equals. Zoe doesn’t shirk from a fight, and Zeus doesn’t feel the need to “protect” her by telling her to sit out every battle. They are equally competent, and Zoe manages to use her powers to complete each of the trials without any outside help.
On the downside, while Zoe frequently and willingly uses her powers, I never really felt like I got a good sense of how it felt to use them. We’re told more than we experience – Zoe just states in her mind what she wants the earth to do, and it does it. There’s so little description that you never get a real visceral feel for what it’s like to have these abilities, and there were so many opportunities to show this. We could have felt the way the earth crumbles at her will, the weight of the boulders as the flings them around, the strain involved in breaking apart the earth and sealing it back up again. Instead, it’s “I concentrated and then it happened”, which is nowhere near as fun.
There’s also apparently not much of a learning curve in mastering God-like elemental control. Hart basically skims over the part where Zoe initially fails to make her powers do what she wants (in like a paragraph), so her general mastery of them doesn’t seem as difficult or as much like development as it could have.
I had a couple of other issues in this vein, as well. The book tends to suffer somewhat from a lack of…spacial coherency and continuity, I suppose. I never really got the feel for where things were in relation to other places – how long Zoe had to walk to get there, how far, how she managed to scale Mt. Olympus in a day, etc. Other times, the action seemed to directly contradict the description we’d been given. At one point, Zoe is placed on top of a tall plateau “the size of a boxing ring”. She closes her eyes and starts running…and somehow winds up miles away on top of Mt. Olympus again. Um, how? Did she fly? Did she ask the ground to rise up and provide her with step-stools as she ran? That’d be nice to know, if she did. And I got the impression that she was pretty far away from Olympus in the first place, how did she manage to run there in what seemed like a brief, blind panic? Was she not that far away at all? I honestly can’t tell.
Hart also occasionally tries to do what I think of as the “Holly Black” method of showing – she opens a sequence with Zoe narrating a seemingly unrelated story that winds up having some relevance to the situation. Usually it seemed to be how Zoe came to a particular realization or decision, and it’s also meant to give us more of an insight in to her character. While I did appreciate the attempt to show, often the ideas that were used to tie these memories to the present situation felt a little strained. For example, during one of her trials, Zoe recalls the time she tried to make a dress, and being terrible at sewing, ended up weighing it down with beads and accents until it fell apart. This, of all things, gives her the idea to try and weigh down a tornado with stones.
Not a total non sequitur, but it did seem like a bit of a stretch ^^; Sometimes it felt more like we were just getting a story for the sake of a story.
Anyway, once Zoe completes her trials, she finds herself in Olympus, and this is where the epic hero plot that I’d been enjoying devolves into some high-school mean girl shenanigans that I honestly thought we might manage to avoid for once. I mean seriously, the book is set in ANCIENT GREECE, but apparently I was I wrong.
On Olympus, Zoe learns that yes, her new love interest is actually Zeus, and that his pals in the Greek pantheon are not “gods” so much as beautiful teenage X-Men who’ve been alive for hundreds of years after touching a magical stone. They’ve used this time to decide that these circumstances make them better than everyone else, and have set themselves up as gods. This might actually have been cool, if the gods’ personalities and group dynamics didn’t end up following every Over-privileged High School Clique cliche, ever.
Zeus, of course, is the nice one. He puts up with the rest because they’ve known each other forever, but it still all gets to be too much some times, so he goes out to roam amongst the unwashed masses. He is literally down-to-earth. His girlfriend Hera is the Alpha Bitch, the actual leader of the Olympians, and because Zeus has so obviously fallen for Zoe, she immediately declares passive-aggressive war on her.
The other Olympians are completely under-developed – they’re all basically Hera’s super-powered posse, with the sort-of exception of Athena. In what I’m thinking may be a deleted subplot, Athena develops a conscience for exactly one scene, and almost sort of bonds with Zoe. Alas, the constrictions of IDK page count and peer pressure goad her into giving up her flirtation with character.
I just couldn’t get in to this interpretation of the gods. It’s not an inherently bad concept, but the characters here are so one-dimensional and limited in their power scope, they just don’t seem like gods. As with most things in the book, we’re told they look down on humans and probably mess around with them when they’re bored, but in the context of the story, they don’t really do anything. They’re just there on Olympus in the background, murmuring agreement while Hera rails against Zoe. Even when they use their powers and get involved in a climactic battle, they’re still more like props than characters, bearing little to no resemblance to the mythological figures they’re supposed to represent.
Accordingly, I suppose, Hart takes the liberty of excluding and altering various members of the pantheon for the express purpose of pairing them up. Deities like Demeter and Hephaestus are totally absent, and Hermes is even made female so that there can be an even male-to-female ratio (not to mention a pretty pointed absence of homosexual couples). I really didn’t get why that was necessary. Their numbers didn’t have to be even for them to constantly be in relationships with one another, and even so, is that really a vital aspect of this group’s mythos? Why? I know Hera throws out her theory of “balance among the gods”, but that seems more like rationalization bullshit on her part, and didn’t seem terribly necessary, as far as motivation goes.
So yeah, just in general, I didn’t find myself caring too much for the interpretation of the gods here. But the Olympians aren’t the only problem with the story once we get to Olympus. The plot’s turn, as well as Zoe’s incredibly strange shift in priorities, made for some difficult reading.
Thanks to Hera’s jealousy and influence, the Olympian’s reception of Zoe is less than friendly, even though they are ostensibly supposed to be accepting her into her ranks now that she’s proved her worth. Instead, they – gasp! – exclude her, shut her down her when she tries to make friends, and ignore her. The most frustrating part is that this matters to Zoe. She sulks about the ~bad impression~ she’s apparently made on “Zeus’ friends”, and keeps going stupidly out of her way to be friendly, despite the fact that they don’t extend the same courtesy. The most mind-boggling part is that by ANY LOGICAL STANDARD, Zoe should not give a shit what these people think of her. What she should be doing is doggedly interrogating all of them about whether or not they know a way to send her home.
Sure, as far as Zoe knows, the gods know nothing about how to get her home, but she doesn’t even ask. She just totally suspends her quest in order to cuddle up to petty immortal teenagers, indulging and participating in their stupid little power games, and letting them get to her.
The idea is still that Zoe could be in danger if she were to expose her true origin, and that she’s in love with Zeus and wants his friends to like her, but I don’t buy that. Again, I really feel here like getting home should supersede every other concern, and once it’s established that not only does Hera dislike her and want her gone, but may actually physically harm her because they don’t know where she comes from, Zoe really has no logical reason to not just spill the beans. Granted, she does do this, but not without Hera’s getting her really drunk first, and it just shouldn’t have come to that in the first place. Because guess what? Hera knows the way out, and she tells Zoe for the sake of getting rid of her. Problem solved, everybody wins!
Except that Zoe doesn’t want to go. She’s too into Zeus, and lkndflnsdfknsdfsdf WHY? Zoe lengthily considers staying in Greece forever and making her home on Olympus because of Zeus, and that has to be not only the least believable, but the most selfish decision ever. Apparently, who gives a shit that her aunt and uncle might miss her and spend years desperately searching for her until they give up in despair, believing her dead. At least Zoe has a boyfriend, right? I don’t understand how any teenager, especially one as responsible and grounded as Zoe supposedly is, could even entertain this notion. Does. Not. Compute.
Sadly enough, when it comes down to it, the only reason Zoe actually does try to leave is because she sees Zeus kissing Hera and is just SO DEVASTATED that she runs away in heartbreak. Really doesn’t seem like it should have taken that, but okay, at least we’re on the same page.
Except that from there, the villain becomes Hera. This is because, of course, she is jealous and “scorned” and wants Zoe dead/gone by any means possible. It’s here that the book and I really, finally part ways, because I just can’t do this Arch Nemesis Queen Bee thing.
This trope just frustrates me. It frustrates me almost as much as stalker boyfriends and sexist werewolves, because it supports this idea that all women are jealous bitches, catty and petty or vain and stupid, and completely unable to maintain friendships without being in competition or feeling threatened by one another. Especially if there happens to be a guy involved.
I realize that Zoe and Hera weren’t friends, and that Hera was legitimately “losing her man” to Zoe. I also realize that this, of all things, is generally true to Hera’s mythological characterization. It still bugs me that this is the route we’re going for the ultimate conflict, and that none of the other gods or goddesses tried to stop it. In this way, it seemed to me like the book was validating Zoe’s overall opinion of her peers. Excepting Zeus, of course, the gods were ultimately as shallow, cruel, and conforming as Zoe had perceived her classmates back at school to be. They are all pointedly and universally less than Zoe herself, and that’s disappointing – it’s lacking in characterization, lacking in complexity and depth, and perpetuating some pretty frustrating tropes, especially about girls.
Hera as a villain felt really phoned-in to me. She isn’t so much a character here as a tired archetype, with no real original motivation or characterization. She’s simply every mean girl in every teen movie ever – jealous, shallow, controlling, conniving. She can’t let go, she can’t just say “fuck you” and get over Zeus – who, naturally, is portrayed as blameless in all this. Hera has to be the woman scorned. We’re told that she’s insecure, lonely, pitiful, and that’s supposed to pass for multifaceted characterization, but it’s just another aspect of the mean girl that we’ve seen before.
Admittedly, these are all things that could be fixed in the sequels. The gods could turn out to be some really stellar characters, the story could go somewhere amazing, and Hera could turn out to be on of the most complex villainesses around. But the job of a first book in a trilogy is to grab our attention, wrap us in this world with these amazing characters that we want to learn more about, and The Dig just didn’t do that for me.
Thanks to the author for providing us with a review copy.