Friday, October 29, 2010

Review - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book Two: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Short review: Percy Jackson's adventures continue, but now he has to rescue his friend from a distant relative. Along the way, he finds he has more family than he thought.

A tree is poisoned
Sparks a quest for Annabeth
To the monster sea

Full review: Percy Jackson's adventures that kicked off in The Lightning Thief (read review) continue in The Sea of Monsters, book two in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. Since the bulk of the background about the nature of the fantasy reality that the story takes place in was already covered in The Lightning Thief, the story kicks off quickly, and pretty much never stops moving at a breakneck pace until the end.

Having returned to the "normal" world for the school year after the Gods refused to take seriously Percy's warnings concerning the rumblings from the dark presence in the pits of Tartarus, Percy finds himself attacked by giants wielding fireballs until he is rescued by a big awkward kid named Tyson that he had befriended. Both Percy and Tyson are rescued by Annabeth and all three flee to Camp Half-Blood where they discover numerous changes have taken place. Chiron has been fired as camp director because Thalia's Tree has been poisoned and he is suspected as the culprit. Thalia's Tree is unable to protect the Camp anymore, and the dire situation sets the main plot of the book into motion as a hero is sent forth to recover the Golden Fleece, the only thing that can cure the tree.

Interestingly, Percy Jackson is not sent on the quest, and neither is his friend Annabeth, which makes for an interesting twist on the story. It turns out that Grover is missing, however, and Percy, Tyson, and Annabeth set out to find and rescue him. Along the way, they intertwine paths with the fleece quester, and run across Luke, now openly consorting with monsters and raising an army to be used against Olympus. This also serves to seriously flesh out what is to become the main plot of the series, as Luke reveals that he seeks to revive an ancient and deadly foe of the Gods. This becomes a major complication as the heroes' quests all wind their way through the titular Sea of Monsters (which turns out to be the Bermuda Triangle) to their intertwined resolution. In the end, justice prevails, but things don't turn out exactly as one expects, and a new complication literally crops up at the end.

Once again, the characters have to deal with numerous creatures from Greek mythology that serve as hurdles for our intrepid heroes to overcome. One element of the fantasy reality that Riordan has crafted is the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between heroes and monsters. For heroes, the game is deadly: if they die, they are dead and presumably go to Hades. Monsters, on the other hand, are symbolic of the maladies of human nature, and as such, they will eventually reform if they are killed. As the monsters rally against the gods and demigods, it seems that the balance of power is potentially insurmountably stacked against the heroes just by the very nature of the fantasy reality. Counterbalancing this to a certain extent is the fact that Riordan seems to have pumped up the power level of the demigods well past anything that one would expect from the original myths. With the exception of the prodigious strength of Heracles, the noteworthy half-blooded heroes of Greek myth such as Theseus, Perseus, and Jason seem to be extraordinarily brave and skilled in battle, but none of them display the divinely inspired supernatural powers that are de rigeur in the Percy Jackson series.

The story, being set mostly at sea, bears some resemblances to the journeys of Ulysses in The Odyssey, although the heroes don't wander the oceans for a decade. One of the more interesting encounters the protagonists have is when they run across the sirens, and Annabeth emulates Ulysses in order to hear their song, and ends up learning something about herself. Overall, the story is quite good, managing to pack plenty of humor and character development in among the fast paced action. Though many series suffer a "sophomore slump" in which the second book suffers a let down in quality, Riordan manages to avoid this, and this book is only a touch less good than the first one, and that is only because it is a hundred pages shorter. Just like the first installment in the series, this book is recommended for anyone who likes fantasy fiction, and highly recommended for any young reader who is interested in, or who is a fan of Greek mythology.

Previous book in the series: The Lightning Thief
Subsequent book in the series: The Titan's Curse

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