Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Short review: Percy Jackson is a misfit, but not really. In fact, he's super special and takes a tour through the monsters of Greek mythology.

Percy's a misfit
But it turns out not really
Just a demigod

Full review: The Lightning Thief is the first book in Rick Riordan's young adult oriented five book Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. As one would expect, the central character of the story is Percy Jackson, who opens the book as a fairly typical twelve year old struggling through his classes, dealing with both ADHD and dyslexia and trying to fit in socially and avoid getting kicked out of yet another school. Everything is turned upside down for him when he discovers that he is pursued by mythological monsters, his favorite teacher is actually Chiron, and Grover, his only friend, is actually a satyr who spends his time combing the Earth for the children of the Gods. In what is surely the fantasy of every socially awkward kid struggling through middle-school, Percy learns that he is, in fact, one of those children, which makes him a demi-god.

Percy quickly finds out, however, that being a demi-god means that monsters will hunt you down and try to kill you, which is why Grover and the other satyrs seek them out, so they can take them to safety. Along with his mother, Percy and Grover flee in his stepfather's car to Camp Half-Blood. Along the way Percy's mother is killed by a minotaur, which Percy slays. Camp Half-Blood turns out to be not just a refuge, but a a training ground for would-be heroes, and Percy, his parentage undetermined, takes up residence in the Hermes house. Things go more or less well until a crisis forces Percy's divine parent to openly claim him, and then sends Percy, along with Grover and his new found friend Annabeth (daughter of Athena) on a quest across the country to enter the Underworld and recover Zeus' stolen masterbolt. The heroes face several classic villains of Greek mythology along the way, make the acquaintance of Ares, the God of War, and finally confront Hades in his throne room. Of course, things aren't as simple as they appear to be on the surface, and various subterfuges are revealed until finally the ultimate villain is uncovered and his plan foiled.

Through the book the story rolls forward at a pretty swift pace, moving Percy and his companions from point to point in fairly short order. The only somewhat slow portion of the book is between when Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood and when he sets out on his assigned quest, as most of the world building that develops Riordan's alternate reality takes place in this section, requiring a fair amount of information to be dumped on the reader while limited actual action is taking place. The other major weakness of the book crops up here too, which is that while everyone is wondering about who Jackson's actual divine parent is, the clues dropped are so heavy handed that any reader with any knowledge at all concerning Greek mythology will figure it out in pretty short order, and be left wondering why all these figures from actual Greek mythology like Chiron and Dionysus remain befuddled.

The one major criticism I have of the book is the idea that Mount Olympus, and thus the Greek Gods, follow the heart of Western culture and civilization about, which is why Mount Olympus is located above New York City in the book. Leaving aside the fact that it take a considerable amount of hubris to assert that the United States is the "heart of the West", the various cults of the Greek Gods were, by and large, impediments to the development of Western thought and culture. It was only when the Greek philosophers rejected the various divine explanations for things that science began to flourish - the birth of the idea of a natural universe probably began when Thales left Marduk out of his explanation for how the continents formed out of the sea. And the Greek Gods in Riordan's version live up to this - they are petty, vain, argumentative, short-sighted, and quite simply exemplars of why they aren't the source of Western culture, all the while remaining completely in line with their established character traits from actual Greek mythology.

Even so, Riordan has created a very believable fantasy reality, weaving in the mythological Gods and monsters of Greek myth into the fabric of modern life, giving the fantastic elements of the story a rooting in reality that serves as a reference point for young readers. Through their travels, Percy, Grover and Annabeth meet and overcome foes, but those foes are embedded in the world around them sufficiently well that famous figures of Greek mythology such as Medusa or Procrustes don't seem out of place (although a knowledgeable reader will probably spot the monsters long before the heroes in the story do). The strong background coupled with the well-paced action scenes and the fact that all of the youthful protagonists are quite well-written and likable characters makes The Lightning Thief a great young adult fantasy, and an excellent book for any young reader who loves Greek myth, or just one who would enjoy being introduced to it.

Subsequent book in the series: The Sea of Monsters.

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