October 30, 2009

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan

Quick note -- "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" refers, in fact, to a series of five books, not a single volume. The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan's Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth, and The Last Olympian tell a large story in their own right, though each has its own plotline beside. I'm hoping that my son, who clued me in to the series and has recently joined the Book Nook as a contributor, will pick up reviewing some of the individual books. In the meantime, here's my take on the series:

This is good stuff! I am usually very skeptical of attempts to blend classic mythology with the modern world. It usually comes out very sloppy. "Percy Jackson" does not. The world is at least as seamless as that of Harry Potter. (Please forgive the comparison, but it was, surely, inevitable.)

The premise? The Greek gods are real. They have been central to Western civilization, and have therefore moved west as Western civilization did. The mythical Mount Olympus is now located at what would be the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. Other landmarks of Greek lore have also moved west. The entrance to Hades, for example, is now in California. The famed and feared Sea of Monsters is what we know as the Bermuda Triangle.

You and I, being mortals, are deceived by a mystical substance called Mist, which makes us see things in a comprehensible fashion. Percy might be attacked by Echidna and the Chimera, but onlookers see something else. A cyclops walking around New York isn't recognized.

Mist is about as clever a device as I've ever seen for explaining why a fantasy world can blend into the real world without being noticed. Riordan, though, doesn't stop there. His characters from Greek mythology are well-presented. Besides the twelve Olympians, Hades, Hestia, Persephone, and Pan; he brings out the minor gods Janus, Morpheus, and others for a war with the titans. Atlas, Hyperion, Kronos, Oceanus, and even Prometheus (in a brilliantly-written appearance) are prominent as the story progresses.

More than that, his use of the Greek monsters shows that he put effort into knowing who they were and what they did. In many ways, this story gives a good background in Greek mythology. Much as I suggested that The Mysterious Benedict Society should get kids interested in learning about Morse Code, this should get kids interested in Greek myths. That, surely, is a great thing. His portrayal of centaurs is quite possibly the only true-to-myth one I've ever seen in fantasy writing.

Best of all, Rick Riordan did not clean up, or (shall we say?) Disney-fy the Greek gods. They're a dysfunctional family. Many of the demi-gods that we meet don't know their immortal parents, because the immortals can't be bothered to keep track of their kids. Many of those who do come to hate their immortal parents for abandoning them. In fact, the war might never have happened if not for this failing among the gods.

Humor runs through the books as well, though. It is narrated in the first person and somewhat informally, though well. Chapter names are hilarious, though. "The Gods Vote How To Kill Us," "I Get a New Enemy For Christmas," and "The Underworld Sends Me a Collect Call," to grab just a few.

Overall, this is a family-affirming story that reinforces values such as loyalty, resolve, and ... well, ... doing the right thing. Percy's confrontations with the Olympians drive home that he's not so much on their side as he is on the side of doing what's right -- sometimes dragging them into it.

One of us will come back and hit on the books individually shortly, I hope. For now, though, I'm giving the series as a whole a somewhat-conservative four stars.

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