Monday, November 1, 2010

Review - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book Five: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

Short review: Kronos wants to destroy Olympus, which would mean the end of Western Civilization. Percy Jackson wants to save it. The Gods are busy elsewhere. Does anyone think Kronos wins?

Olympians busy
For the Titanomachy
Demigods defend

Full review: As one might expect, all of the hanging plot threads, character issues, and conflicts left over from the previous books featuring Percy Jackson all culminate in The Last Olympian, the final volume of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. While many series experience something of a let down in their final act, as the author struggles to bring his carefully laid plots to a satisfying conclusion, happily The Last Olympian avoids this problem and finishes off this excellent young adult series with a strong story and in a manner that is both unpredictable and yet fully in character for all the participants.

Following the attack on Camp Half-Blood in The Battle of the Labyrinth (read review), Kronos had retired to rally his forces, but also set various plans in motion. After an awkward interlude with plot complication Rachel Dare, the book opens with Percy, along with the demigod Beckendorf (a child of Hephaestus), heading off to try to destroy Kronos' cruise ship of the damned and weaken the forces of the Titans. Although the series has had its share of lethal consequences before - Bianca di Angelo's death, Daedalus' death, and so on - the book signals that things will be getting rough for the final act when Beckendorf meets his end a scant handful of pages into the story.

And the action only accelerates from there. With most of the Olympian gods away to fight the released monster Typhon, and Poseidon defending his undersea kingdom from the forces of the titan Oceanus, Percy and the other inhabitants of Camp Half-Blood are called upon to defend Mount Olympus itself (actually, Manhattan) from Kornos' main forces, including a variety of monsters, disaffected demigods, and several titans (including Prometheus). The demigods are aided by various allied creatures, such as the Party Ponies, the Hunters of Artemis, and various nature spirits, but they are wildly outnumbered. Their position is made even more untenable with the revelation that there is a spy among the supposedly loyal demigods of Camp Half-Blood, and the fact that the entire Ares contingent refuses to fight as a result of feeling snubbed.

Which brings up one of the interesting questions that is more or less unanswered in the book, namely why would anyone remain loyal to the Olympian gods? Riordan presents them in a modern context, with their attributes given a contemporary twist, but keeps them by and large true to their mythologically established personalities. And to the modern eye, the mythological personalities of the Olympian gods are fairly distasteful. They are petty, childish, mostly uncaring of the harm they might cause, and generally indifferent to anything that is not of immediate interest. In this context, and with the additional character background provided in this volume, not only does Luke's turn against the Olympian gods become understandable, one begins to wonder why those who are loyal have remained so. In short, the disaffected demigods and minor gods seem to have a much better basis for choosing Kronos' side than the demigods have for choosing to side with Zeus. Interestingly, Prometheus also turns against the gods in this go round (having supported the Olympian gods in the first Titanomachy), which for those who understand the myth centered on him, seems unsurprising, and is yet another example of the arbitrary and cruel nature of the Olympian gods. But the interesting element here is that the character of Prometheus, who the myths say brought man learning and knowledge, is much more in line with what one would describe as Western civilization than the traditional Olympian gods. Given that Mount Olympus is supposed to be located in the "Heart of the West", and the power of the Olympian gods is supposed to underpin Western civilization, this is an interesting (and probably unintentional) contradiction.

Philosophical contradictions aside, the meat of the book is in the fight for control of Manhattan. And the action in the fight comes fast and furious. Just about every character that has entered the story before gets a chance to shine in the fight, even a couple characters that in previous books died get a nod here, notably Daedalus whose creations Annabeth is able to turn to the side of the demigods in a sequence that adds some much needed levity to the otherwise fairly dark story. As noted elsewhere, the demigods in the Percy Jackson series display a level of power that seems more in line with comic book superheroes than the demigods of Greek legend, a fact which comes in to play in the battle. Ramping up the powers of the demigods is probably the only thing that makes the battle even plausible, as one would expect that Jason, Achilles, and Theseus, a heroic as they are in their myths, would have a hard time standing against one or two monsters, let alone the hundreds that swarm Manhattan's defenders in this story. After many twists and turns, eventually everything leads up to a big showdown with Kronos, and the prophecy that had been hanging over most of the series must finally be fulfilled, and it is, although not in the way that one might expect. In the end, it falls to Percy to convince his father to choose the strategic option though it costs him a tactical defeat. Percy must also rectify the troubles caused by the Olympians own personalities by compelling the Olympians to behave in a more civilized manner than they have in the past. One might question whether a sixteen year old boy, even one who has experienced the incredible highs and lows that Percy Jackson has, could have anything to say that divine beings would need to hear. But since Riordan has kept the capricious and almost cruel nature of the Olympian gods intact as part of his fantasy milieu, the lecture Percy delivers at the close of the second Titanomachy seems to fit the story perfectly and caps off the story with a strong finish.

Overall, this is a strong finish to a very good young adult fantasy series. Despite the generally upbeat ending, Riordan weaves in a fair amount of sadness, as many of the heroic characters who have populated this fantasy world fall in the fight to save Olympus from destruction, and others find themselves at the end of their road having won, but having to face their own disappointments. The very final pages resolve the romantic conundrum of the series, but also serve as a potential springboard for a follow-up series, as the newly installed Oracle announces a new prophecy. But with only that hanging thread left, the story otherwise runs to a very satisfying conclusion and serves as an excellent final act to a fun and engaging series of books.

Previous book in the series: The Battle of the Labyrinth.

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