by Rick Riordian
Review by SF Winser
You ever read a book where it felt like the author had sat down and thought 'What would make that SF Winser melt with joy?'. Probably not. I'm sure you rarely have that thought. But substitute your name for mine in there... When was the last time you thought you might be the ideal reader for a book? Like the author had designed the prose just to make you, and just you, smile.
Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson did that for me. Which is strange, seeing as I only picked them up because (the notoriously crap) director Chris Columbus had adapted them into movies and I wanted to see what he was destroying.
Growing up, I was an odd kid with odd reading habits. I honestly can't remember whether I fell in love with fantasy because I loved mythology or vice versa. Riordan, here, has channeled my childhood.
This is the story of a boy who finds out that the Greek Gods are real. And one of them is his dad.
Percy (Perseus) Jackson is a Half-Blood. A Demi-God with one of the Olympian Gods as his father. You see, the Greek pantheon are still around, still fighting with each other and interacting with the world and sometimes they still fall in love with mortals. Percy is the result of one of the Gods' indiscretions.
This is a problem, because Half-Bloods don't fit in the world very well. They all have ADHD-like symptoms from the simple fact that they don't see the world like everyone else and have reactions and attention spans more suited to swinging swords in battle. If this weren't bad enough, Half-Bloods, by their very nature, attract monsters.
So Percy is sometimes distracted, acts a bit stupid sometimes, is often unaware of important things happening around him and even has attacks of 'being a teenager' (ie, sometimes a jerk). On top of which, he has to come to terms with his strange parentage and the fact that many people want him dead simply because of who he is. Some of these people are magical. Some of these people have claws.
The books tend to have a quest of some sort at their centre. The search for a Daedelus, a hunt for Zeus's stolen Lightning Bolt, and along the way there are encounters with many, many monsters and other mythological-style problems.
The 'ancient gods in a modern world' idea isn't new, but this is as well done a romp as any of the other versions. Better, in some ways.
The thing I liked most about this series—and I don't pretend the average teen reader will have the same background as me—is the way the Gods all have personalities similar to what they show in the old stories I loved. They have grown a bit in 3000 years, but Apollo is still self-absorbed yet brilliant, Hermes is a scamp, Zeus is powerful but at times pig-headed. The interaction between them and the mortals is often interesting and not always easy. The Gods do not unilaterally love Percy simply because he's a hero. At least one God hates him, several are miffed at his very existence and the Godly parent of one of his best friends quite seriously discusses his execution. I don't want to go too much into this because the plot of one book often relies on Percy and friends’ misunderstanding the nature of one of the Gods' motivations. And this had annoyed the crap out of me up to the point where we find out that that particular God wasn't who Percy originally thought.
It's a funny series, full of action and with some interesting character-building and relationships. The chapter titles themselves are often silly. 'In Which I become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom', 'Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death' etc.. A lot of the humour comes from the incongruity of ancient ideas in a modern setting, which Riordan often plays with deliberate silliness, but he only rarely steps over the line into the ridiculous. He does sometimes miss, but not too often.
There are two major problems with the series and one or two minor ones. The major ones: It is very much like Harry Potter. I don't think this is plagiarism, it's just that the books cover similar stylistic ground and are bound to use similar tropes and archetypes. In a way, this is a compliment. The Olympians books are fun, funny, kid-friendly fantasy books. But coming across the 'Secret School', 'The Mischievous Twins', 'The Scholarly Lead Female' and many others, in very similar contexts, means that the similarities become distracting at times. I started thinking of the main female character 'Annabeth' as 'Hermiobeth'. Though, if I'm being honest, Annabeth has more spunk and less whinginess than Hermione and as a lead character, Percy is much more convincing than the at-times non-entity Harry. And Riordan doesn't let his characters spend too much time in the 'Secret School': they need to be out and about, traveling North America and fighting monsters.
The other major problem is the episodic nature of the middle of some of the books and the deus ex machina resolutions to some of the problems these episodes raise. Except... well... this is a story about modern Demi-Gods going on epic quests. Epics are often episodic. And very often have deus ex machina resolutions. In fact deus ex machina means 'God out of the Machine' and describes how in ancient Greek plays – where there was a very modern obsession with special effects – often had a God pop out of some ingenious bit of stage machinery and solve all the problems in the play with a wave of a divine wrist. If anyone were allowed – or even required – to have the odd bit of god-popping machinery, it's Riordan in these books. If you have Gods, you kind of have to use them every so often.
The challenges themselves are often encounters with ancient monsters or mythic puzzles. Riordan is at his best when he has his heroes take on these old ideas in new and interesting ways. Most of the time, these are well handled. Sometimes they aren't, but the hits outweigh the misses. I especially love Annabeth's encounter with a 'quiz-show-host' Sphinx, even though her reaction doesn't count as a resolution or even as clear thinking. It's simply hilarious the way her actions anticipated this reader's frustration with the crap the Sphinx is trying to pull. And Percy's encounter with Calypso in book #4 is simply wonderful and close to heartbreaking.
Minor problems include the fact that Percy spends so little time in the one place that could train him for his odd life. Everyone – including Percy – should be pushing for him to stay at Camp Half-Blood (The Demi-God training school) but mostly they encourage him to only come in summer, to spend half the summer on quests outside the camp and then the plot will often rely on him caring about the safety of the people in the camp. People he barely knows, and most of whom seem to treat him like crap on the rare occasions when he is there.
Another being that at least one of the books relies very heavily on dreams as a narrative device. For about a third of the book, it feels. The dreams are at least not the symbolic/poetic crap that gets old almost as the author types them – they're a way for various people to show Percy what his enemies and lost allies are up to - but they still wear thin long before they stop coming.
But I must admit I'm looking for problems. I'm deliberately stripping off my rose-tinted glasses. Then truth is that these are fun, funny books for teens and pre-teens (and willing adults) and I read them at a pace of one book a day for nearly a week, enjoying myself like a kid on a rollercoaster after the tenth caffeinated beverage. Yes there are issues and some clumsy parts. But, screw them. I noticed them and didn't care. These books were a blast and have shot to near the top of my recommend-to-younger-readers list. And I'll most likely reread them myself next time I need some innocent fun.