Percy Jackson & the Olympians by Rick Riordan
I have a confession to make. I’ve never been a fan of classical mythology. The Greek and Roman deities never sat well with me. In all my reading of what few works of classical literature I’ve actually read the Gods have always felt petty, cruel, and vain. I know that isn’t the complete answer but I’ve never been able to to put my finger on precisely why Greek mythology has continually left a sour taste in my mouth. In hindsight it perhaps has a lot to do with Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” which casts Zeus’ “seduction” of Leda as a rape and my own exposure to that poem making me readily willing to accept the more modern interpretation of Medusa as a rape victim rather than a willing amorous consort of Poseidon. It has been a long long time since I’ve looked at classical mythological tales with anything more than extreme distaste. Thus it is no small surprise that when I picked up the audio version of The Lightning Thief (Book 1 of Percy Jackson and the Olympians) it was with some trepidation. As a book and series directed primarily towards children on the verge of teenage years it was with great difficulty that I attempted to put aside my adult perceptions of Greek mythology and attempted to view Rick Riordan’s work through the eyes of youth.
I was only partially successful. Part of the problem is that the series relies completely on the notion of half-bloods; demigods. This reliance casts the amorous activities of the Greek pantheon in a bright light even if it is shunted off to the periphery of the story; neither helped in putting aside my own reservations. Part of the problem is Percy himself. Burdened with ADHD and dyslexia (both symptoms of his demigod nature) he is, quite frequently, a bit slow on the uptake. There are very few things more sad than a 27-year-old man screaming in frustration at the antics of a fictional 12-year-old in a book meant for children not too shy of half his age. But I’m not a proud man. I readily admit that there was more than once, in every book in the series, where I was vocally and violently cursing Percy’s inability to grasp things quickly enough for my tastes.
In truth that is my most major complaint and it one that I think is easily dismissed given the series’ intended audience. By and large Percy Jackson and Olympians, for all its mythological influence, is a delightfully imaginative series that will entertain and delight readers of just about any age. Given those classical influences it is no small surprise that The Lightning Thief is, in terms of structure, a fairly straightforward quest narrative. Much like classic fantasy series it introduces a hero of humble origins who finds within himself an unsuspected power and is correspondingly thrust into great deeds. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and it is this that makes The Lightning Thief and the series at large such a joy to read. Riordan crafts a believable and enchanting world molding classical mythology so that it fits almost seamlessly into our own world. Cerebus distracted by a ball, Medusa operating a garden store that sells statues, quarrelsome river spirits of the Hudson and East river, party-loving centaurs represent just a few of the small touches and amusing flourishes that Riordan uses to sell his world to the reader.
Percy, occasionally slow on the uptake or not, is an interesting if somewhat traditional hero figure but given the mythological background of the story and his name (Perseus) that isn’t really any surprise. Riordan does some a fantastic job of portraying Percy’s relationship with his mother and the continued strengthening of their bond over the course of the series is a beautiful touch to the story. Brash, bold, and with a temper inherited from his father Poseidon, Percy manages to consistently get himself in trouble yet with his own skills and the help of numerous friends typically manages to find his way out of trouble as well. My only really stumbling block when it comes to Percy’s character occurs in the end of The Lightning Thief which, while I won’t ruin, by and large seemed like an outright murder to me; but perhaps I’m overreacting. Annabeth Chase, is the ambitious daughter of Athena who befriends Percy and the rivalry between their parents places them at odds (initially and over the course of the series) while circumstances turn them into friends. Perhaps my favorite character isn’t introduced until The Titan’s Curse (and there only briefly) but the spunky and completely mortal Rachel Elizabeth Dare remains, for me at least, the most intriguing character in the series. Able to see through the “mist” that blinds most human to the presence of gods and monsters her attitude, and willingness to risk her life (without the safety net of demigod powers) for her friends and the greater good is both admirable and, particularly when it comes to her friends, touching. Other characters amongst Percy’s circle of friends include the satyr Grover who grows from a self-conscious and nervous individual in The Lightning Thief into a capable (if still somewhat nervous) leader by series end and Tyson, a young cyclopes befriended by Percy (as well as technically speaking his half-brother) whose reclusive and somewhat simple nature hide a noble and frequently courageous young man. Even the villains are likeable and Riordan does a fantastic job of creating a villain in The Lightning Thief who maintains an aura of mystery right up until The Last Olympian where his defeat is both triumphant and tragic; a near perfect end for a story rooted in Greek myth.
Riordan definitely has a flair for the dramatic and his fight scenes, particularly Percy’s one-on-one battles are all extraordinarily exciting from the final battle in The Lightning Thief, to his battle in arena during The Battle of the Labyrinth, right up to final confrontation on Mount Olympus in The Last Olympian; Riordan keeps these fresh, fast-moving, and edge-of-your seat. Indeed the dramatic final battle, or rather its absence, in the mostly abysmal film version of The Lightning Thief was one of the saddest revelations I’ve had in years.
The audio versions of the books are all in the capable hands of Jesse Bernstein who, while not favorite readers, does an absolutely wonderful of capturing the youth of his characters. Bernstein is definitely a top-notch reader and his ability to capture the personality of his characters through changes in pitch and intonation is impressive. There was something about his narration that I did find slightly grating but I’m not sure I can divorce that notion from my own frustrations with Percy as a character.
While not quite an instant classic like Harry Potter, the series most frequently draws comparison to, Percy Jackson and the Olympians remains a stellar entry into the children’s literature market in the aughts. Like The Boy Who Lived, Percy Jackson fires up the imagination to a near fever pitch that is difficult to ignore. If you have kids that haven’t read this series I’d strongly recommend giving this series a try and read (or listen) along with them; I dare you not to get caught up in the vibrant world that Rick Riordan has conjured here.