Happy Monday and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for CURSE OF THE SPECTER QUEEN by Jenny Elder Moke! I’m so excited because today I have an excerpt of the book to share with you! This book is truly amazing and I’m so so excited to for you to find out more about it, PLUS enter for a chance to win a print copy!!
Curse of the Specter Queen by Jenny Elder Moke
Published on June 1, 2021 by Disney-Hyperion
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Mythology, YA
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Author Links: Website, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, Instagram
MAY THE HAZEL BRING YOU WISDOM AND THE ASPEN GUIDE AND PROTECT YOU...
Samantha Knox put away her childish fantasies of archaeological adventure the day her father didn't return home from the Great War, retreating to the safety of the antique bookshop where she works. But when a mysterious package arrives with a damaged diary inside, Sam's peaceful life is obliterated. Ruthless men intent on reclaiming the diary are after Sam, setting her and her best friend, along with her childhood crush, on a high-stakes adventure that lands them in the green hills outside Dublin, Ireland. Here they discover an ancient order with a dark purpose - to perform an occult ritual that will raise the Specter Queen, the Celtic goddess of vengeance and death, to bring about a war unlike any the world has ever seen. To stop them, Sam must solve a deviously complex cipher - one that will lead her on a treasure hunt to discover the ancient relic at the heart of the ritual: a bowl carved from the tree of life. Will she find the bowl and stop the curse of the Specter Queen, or will the ancient order bring about the end of the world?
Indiana Jones gets a refresh with this female-driven mystery adventure, set in the 1920s, full of ciphers, ancient relics, and heart-stopping action - the first in a brand-new series!
Sam let the first door chime go unanswered, occupied as she was with the stack of delicate books cradled in her arms. The second chime earned a grunt of displeasure from her as she scanned the shelves for the first edition of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding she had repaired last week. She spotted it, tucked safely between Kant and Machiavelli. The third chime rang so insistently that she tipped the book forward too hard and it dropped to the floor with an ominous crack.
“Oh dear,” she said, crouching down to retrieve the book. “Mr. Locke, I apologize. And I swear to you if it’s the butcher’s boys again, I will take the broad side of his cleaver to their rear ends myself.”
The spine appeared unmarred, which was more than Sam could say for her disposition as she stacked the book on top of the others and jostled to a standing position. She tottered to the front of the shop and set them down on the desk. In the window stood the rounded figure of Clement’s postman, his face pressed to the glass and obscuring the gold lettering across the door. She checked off each book on her inventory list, letting him freeze in the early January snows of rural Illinois, before crossing to the door and unlocking it. A blast of cold drove it open like an unwanted guest.
“Yes, Georgie, what is it you need?” she asked, shivering back from the chill.
“Got your mail,” Georgie huffed, bustling past her to drop his sack on the desk. He trod in drifts of snow across her pristine carpet and she swept the more offensive piles back out the door as she swung it shut.
“That’s why I had the package drop put in, Georgie,” Sam said.
“So you can leave them in a protected box without them getting soaked by the melting snow you’re tracking in.”
“It’s colder than a brass toilet seat in the arctic out there,” Georgie replied, leaning against his mailbag like he planned to stay. He peered into the stacks behind Sam. “It’s toasty in here, though. Must be nice for you, being tucked up in this place all day.”
“We keep the temperature stable for the books,” Sam said, her patient tone fraying at the edges. She had plenty to do before her long walk home in that same snow, and she couldn’t do it as long as Georgie was here chewing the cud. “Extreme heat and cold damage the leather. You said you had my mail?”
“Oh, sure.” Georgie ducked his head into the thick canvas sack. “Couple of these are too big, wouldn’t fit through the slot.”
Sam was sure his bell ringing had far more to do with the warm interior of the shop than with any oversize packages, but it was too late for that. Here he was already, invading her space and upending the careful equilibrium she maintained. He didn’t care that there was the rest of the inventory list to get to, plus the packages to prepare and send to Mr. Peltingham in London and Mr. Burnham in Oslo, never mind the repairs to the copy of Medieval Remedies for Cistercian Monks they had received at the shop last week. She didn’t have time for Georgie Heath and the trail of muddy snow he dragged everywhere.
He pulled a small collection of boxes from his sack—none of them, as Sam suspected, too large for the mail slot—with an exotic array of stamps across the front. Sam’s heart rate picked up when she spotted Mr. Studen’s scrawled handwriting. He always had the best finds in Paris. She grabbed her letter opener and sliced through the thick paper.
“Books,” Georgie said, in the same tone his father used when talking about the neighbor’s marauding hogs. “Always books, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sam said with a happy little sigh, extracting Mr. Studen’s letter along with his latest find. “We are a bookshop, Georgie.”
Oh, clever Mr. Studen. She smiled at the first few lines of introduction, a jumble of letters and pictographic marks. He’d sent her another cryptogram, with a small note dashed at the top that read I’m sure to stump you this time.
He wasn’t, but she appreciated the challenge.
Georgie gave a snort. “I don’t know what we need with a bookshop here in Clement, anyhow. We’ve already got a library.”
“A collection of old family bibles does not count as a library,” Sam said, reaching for a pencil and paper. It looked to be a straightforward monoalphabetic cipher despite the distraction of the pictographic marks, but she didn’t want to underestimate Mr. Studen so quickly.
Georgie shrugged. “I was happy enough to give that stuff up the second I walked out of Mrs. Iris’s schoolroom for good.”
“Madame Iris,” Sam corrected.
“Madame,” Georgie said in a gross mockery of the French madame’s accent. “Pa says a book is only good for propping open a door or knocking a fella out.”
“Well I would expect no less from the man who led a town-wide protest when Mr. Steeling hired a Frenchwoman to teach at the schoolhouse,” Sam murmured, making a list of the most frequent letter appearances and the most common letter groupings in the cipher. Georgie craned his neck around, squinting at Mr. Studen’s neat handwriting.
“What is that?” he asked. “Some kind of gibberish?”
“It’s a cipher,” Sam said. “A code. It’s meant to keep a message hidden.”
The last word she said pointedly, looking up at the intrusion of his person on her space. If Georgie noticed her intention—which Sam was positive he did not—he didn’t do anything to resolve it. Instead he scooted in closer, wrinkling up his nose like his father’s prize hog.
“Well, how do you know what it says?” Georgie asked.
“You need a key,” Sam murmured, writing out a few attempts at the letters she thought she might have deduced.
“Do you have the key?”
“Well then how do you know what it says?”
Sam let out a sigh. “I don’t, Georgie. Not yet. I have to decrypt it, which would be much easier to do without so much distracting chatter.”
Georgie rocked back. “I get it, this is like those things you and Jo and Bennett used to do, out at the Manor, right? Those treasure hunts you’d make up.”
“We didn’t make them up, Mr. Steeling did,” Sam said, setting down her pencil and folding the letter closed along with her deciphering attempts, away from Georgie’s prying eyes. “And I haven’t done those in years, not since we were children.”
Georgie shrugged. “Maybe you and Joana can put one up now that she’s in Clement again.”
Sam drew back. “Jo’s in town?”
“Yeah, didn’t you know it? I figured she would have come to see you straightaway. You were the only one she ever bothered with. Maybe she’s too good for you now, too, after being at that fancy academy in Chicago.”
Joana Steeling was back in Clement and she hadn’t come to see Sam. So, she was still mad about the fight. Sam had tried so many times to explain why she couldn’t go to the academy with Joana—first in person, and after Joana left, through half-finished letters—but Joana couldn’t understand. It was so easy for her, the heiress of the Steeling fortune, to spend late nights in shady speakeasies flirting with the boys, getting into and out of trouble. But Sam could never live like that. Most likely Joana had found her people at Marquart Academy. It didn’t surprise her that Joana had moved on, but it did surprise her how much it hurt hearing about it from Georgie Heath.
“If you see Jo, tell her we’re out at the old barn most nights, me and Pete and the gang,” Georgie said, oblivious to Sam’s discomfort. “They might have those swanky speakeasies up in Chicago, but nobody’s calling the G-men on us. We do what we want, all night if we want it.”
“Sounds a dream,” Sam said tiredly. “But I’ve got work to do, if there’s nothing else.”
“Oh, right, got your newspaper here,” he said, ducking back into the bag and pulling out a copy of the Chicago Daily News. Sam’s attention snagged on a small headline tucked into the right corner of the front page: TUT OPERATIONS RESUMED.
“The curse of the mummy has been lifted,” she murmured, leaning closer to read the rest of the article.
“Are they still writing about that thing?” Georgie asked, glancing at the paper. “The grave or whatever?”
“Yes, they’re still writing about the tomb of Tutankhamen,” Sam said dryly. “It’s the greatest archaeological discovery of our time.”
Georgie waved her off. “I don’t see any point in all that old stuff, who cares? They’re all dead anyway.”
Sam had no intention of explaining the historical significance of Howard Carter’s recent discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. No one in Clement would understand, except her boss, Mr. Steeling. He shared Sam’s fascination with all things ancient and lost. He spent much of his time traveling overseas to exotic places like Greece to join archaeological excavations. Places she would only ever read about in the Daily News. She snapped the paper closed and placed it on the desk, looking at Georgie expectantly.
“Well, I suppose that’s all,” Georgie said, gazing forlornly out at the brutal white of the main street of Clement.
“Yes, well, enjoy your evening in the barn with the other boys,” Sam said, picking up his sack and putting it on his shoulder, using the movement to push the rest of him toward the front door. They both squinted against the cold wind that burst through the opening.
“All right, all right, I’m off,” Georgie said, the winter wind turning him chapped and irritable again. “You tell Jo—”
“Will do, thank you, Georgie,” Sam said, swinging the door shut and throwing the dead bolt.
She took a deep, cleansing breath of the temperature-controlled interior of the store, the soft scent of the oiled leather covers restoring her sense of self, before turning her attention to the stack of recent arrivals. Her eagerness to discover new friends outweighed her obligation to the packaging list or the pang in her gut about Joana returning home and not coming to see her.
She had just begun to sort the packages when a smaller one slipped out from the press of the others, the paper soiled and the corner torn away. It looked as if it had been through a monsoon, the writing so faded it was a wonder Georgie had known where to deliver it at all. And judging by the various interpretations of the address scribbled across the front, she wasn’t sure the bookshop had been the package’s first delivery attempt. How long had it been in the system, knocked from one place to the other, before it got to her? There was no return address. She held it up, a small puff of dry earth sifting onto the desk.
“What a terrible journey you’ve been through,” she tutted. “Let’s get you fixed up.”
She carried the package to the repair room in the back. The work lamp there glowing a bluish white. A humidifier hummed beside it, giving the occasional ping in the relative silence. She sat at the worktable and opened the package. A little avalanche of dust and desiccated plant parts came sliding out along with the enclosed item.
The book was small, barely larger than her hand, the cover in such disrepair that Sam feared it would disintegrate if she so much as gave it a stern look. She had seen plenty of books in a variety of conditions since she started working at Steeling’s Rare Antiquities, but this had to be the worst state of deterioration she’d ever witnessed. It looked as if the book had been buried in someone’s back field and dug up by a stray goat.
“Who would do such a thing to you?” she wondered, her chest aching at the violence the book had encountered on its journey. “Well, whatever ills have befallen you, you’re safe here now.”
There was nothing in the package to indicate where it had come from, no letter of provenance or introduction from a buyer explaining what the book was or why they had sent it. The mystery of it had her pulling out her tools, for the moment abandoning the other new arrivals. She took her brush and went to work, tilting it up to sweep softly along the outside edges, collecting a tidy pile of earth and sediment.
Already she knew it would need a rest in the humidifier to loosen up the pages and hopefully restore the faded writing within. Once she had sufficiently cleaned the outside, she began her preliminary inspection of the interior. The pages were so waterlogged she could hardly pry them apart, but with the aid of a scalpel and a level of patience bordering on stubbornness, she managed to loosen one enough to pull it open.
The writing was, as she suspected, faded and illegible in many places, but that wasn’t what drew her attention to the book. It was the hasty sketch of a cat on the open page, the graphite strokes thick and dark and tearing through the paper in some places. She could even see smudges where the lead must have broken. Whoever drew this cat must have had very strong feelings about it.
Except that, the longer she stared at the image, the less it actually looked like a cat. At least, not like any ordinary house cat. The proportions were all wrong—the ears too sharp and pointed, almost like horns; the jaw too long and narrow, more fitted to a dog. And then there were the eyes. They were nothing more than blank page, but the longer she stared, the more they seemed to burn, two desolate holes radiating a promise of danger. Awareness prickled down her legs and across her arms, as if a wayward slip of icy January wind had found its way into the shop. But it wasn’t the wind. It was the way the cat kept staring, even when she slid the book aside. Those sightless eyes were on her, always on her, and in a fit of fear she slammed the cover shut.
“Don’t be such a fool,” Sam muttered, though she made no attempt to open it again. “It’s only an old book. What’s the harm?”
Georgie was putting her on. He must be. This was exactly the kind of prank he and Pete and the other boys would pull back in Madame Iris’s schoolroom. Leaving notes with rude poems, knowing she would mistake them for clues to a new treasure hunt at Steeling Manor, the hunts Mr. Steeling created for his children and Sam. They must be bored to tears after the last snowstorm, getting pickled out there in his father’s barn every night. They were probably watching through the front window, waiting to see her come tearing out of there screaming.
But there was nothing at the door save the whistle of the winter wind and the last rays of a dying sun. The darkness looming outside made the malevolence emanating from the book so much worse, and Sam was acutely aware of how alone she was just then. She hovered in the doorway of the workroom, not wanting to come any closer to the odd little book.
“What are you?” she whispered.
But whatever secrets the book had, it held them as tightly as the dust wedged into its pages. Sam chewed at one corner of her lip, weighing her options. She could try to chase down Georgie, force the book back on him, and make him deliver it out to Steeling Manor. But the shop was the last stop on his route; he was probably halfway back to the barn by now, and halfway into a flask of his awful bathtub gin. The boy could be surprisingly agile when getting away from work. She could leave it until the next time Mr. Steeling came by to check on the new arrivals, but that could be weeks from now and Sam didn’t want it hanging around.
No, there was nothing for it. She would have to deliver it to Steeling Manor herself. Which meant facing her fears, and potentially her former best friend.
“Oh, Sammy girl, what have you gotten yourself into?” she sighed, tucking the book into her satchel and pulling the strap across her chest like a battle shield.
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What do you think about Curse of the Specter Queen? Have you added it to your tbr yet? Let me know in the comments and have a splendiferous day!