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09 June 2010

Book Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Percy Jackson and the Olympians  by Rick Riordan

Derivative? Sure. 

Fun? Absolutely. 

Educational? You betcha. 

Sure, it's similar to Harry Potter. But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Yolen's Wizard's Hall is a version of Harry Potter. Written before Harry Potter. Hmmm. 

If Riordan is derivative of anyone, and beholden to anyone, it's Homer and the lexicon of Greek mythology. Just as Rowling is beholden. And Pratchett. And the writers of the Bible (in the original Greek version of the bible, hell is called "Tartarus" ... hmmm). And, and, and. 

However derivative it all is, Riordan has done a bang-up job of re-imagining a mythological world married to our modern world in a way that makes me smile quietly in appreciation. Olympus is over New York and Hades under L.A.? Brilliant. Dyslexia is a demi-god affliction because they are half-wired to read ancient Greek? Clever. Satyrs pissed off about the sullying of the environment by humans? Nice. 

Yes, sometimes Riordan's prose is a tad clunky but it didn't bother me one bit. This is a first-person narrative by a 12 year old. A dyslexic 12 year old. With ADHD. And, for all of the obvious shortcomings of prose aimed at pre-teens being consumed by adults, the effect is often lovely. Take, for example, this gem of a description of Percy's mother, "My mother can make me feel good just by walking into the room. Her eyes sparkle and change color in the light. Her smile is as warm as a quilt. She's got a few gray streaks mixed in with her long brown hair, but I never think of her as old. When she looks at me, it's like she's seeing all the good things about me, none of the bad." 

And who wouldn't like the idea of like Ares on a Harley or Charon wearing Italian Suits? Or Hades causing all the California earthquakes? Or the fight between Zeus and Poseidon, gods of sky and sea, causing all the weird weather we have? 

That's what is fun about Rowling, too. Imagining an otherworld folded into the one I live in every day. 

In the way-back-then-olden days, mythology existed solely to explain the things that couldn't be explained. In our uber-rational modernity, a world saturated by three main religions and the overwhelming logic of science, mythology still exists but now it seems to function solely to reawaken magic and wonder in a world almost entirely divorced from awe. 

Ergo, kudos to Riordan, and Rowling, and Pratchett, and Pullman, and Susan Cooper, and Wynne-Jones, and Juster, and Julie Andrews, and, and, and... Kudos to all of them for writing books that reconnect us with wonder. 


The Sea of Monsters is a read-like-the-wind-to-find-out-what-happens sequel.  As readable and charming as the first, despite the fact that there were not as many opportunities to cleverly overlay  mythology onto modern America (though I particularly liked that the Sea of Monsters was the Bermuda Triangle.)  And, as there were in the first book, there were some lovely laugh-out-loud moments (as when Percy confuses "hummus" with "hubris") and a predictable plot which, still, despite its predictability, entertains beautifully.

The Titan's Curse is a fine continuation of the very readable series; Riordan makes me want to learn my mythology; I wonder how many jokes I'm missing like this one; 

"Zeus's girl, yes?" asked Apollo. "Makes you my half-sister. Used to be a tree, didn't you? Glad you're back. I hate it when pretty girls turn into trees. Man, I remember one time - " 

I giggled. But only because I know about how Daphne turned into a laurel tree to escape Apollo's clutches. And I only know that because my son gave me a lecture at the museum a couple of months ago. 

He's really going to get a kick out of these someday.

The Battle of the Labyrinth, Percy and company set out on another adventure to find Daedalus, the inventor.  This one seemed less tightly drawn than the first three.   But still a page-turner with some engaging lessons, as when Pan communicates this little lovely;  "But my name, Pan ... originally it meant rustic.  Did you know that?  But over the years it has come to mean all.  The spirit of the wild must pass to all of you now.  You must tell each one you meet: if you would find Pan, take up Pan's spirit.  Remake the wild, a little at a time, each in your own corner of the world.  You cannot wait for anyone else, even a god, to do that for you."

The Last Olympian is a rip-roaring, high-octane final battle.  Riordan leaves it open for a sequel;  one can only hope.

I am looking very forward to reading these again.

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