OK, it’s a young adult book. But it’s holiday time, and I can be forgiven for a fun and easy read. Which is what Percy Jackson and the Olympians, subtitled The Lightning Thief (2005) is. It’s also the first of a series of five Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, which have further morphed into a related series called The Heroes of Olympus, the whole oeuvre being entitled the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles. To say nothing of two films, and over three million Facebook likes. (To put this into perspective, Harry Potter, with whom Percy Jackson is inevitably compared, has over seven and a half million.)
The Olympians are not athletes. They are gods. Riordan is playing with the idea that the old Greek gods, and their entourage of heroes, satyrs, naiads, dryads and assorted monsters never disappeared, and have on occasion, taken a hand in human history –(eg Prohibition was a punishment imposed by Zeus on Dionysus). Early in the story, which is set in present day New York, Percy – short for Perseus – finds out that he is the son of a god – though he doesn’t initially know which one. He is sent on a quest to find Zeus’s ‘master bolt’ – the symbol of his power – which has been stolen. He is helped by Annabeth, another half-god, a daughter of Athena, and Grover, a satyr who hides his hairy hind quarters and hoofs under baggy jeans and sneakers. Together, they have a series of adventures, some of which resemble those of Perseus, some call Hercules to mind, and one even seems to come from The Odyssey.
You can read this book – and I’m sure that this is the case for most of the young adults who read it – without any knowledge of Greek mythology. Riordan has published a sort of handbook on this mythology – Percy’s personal take on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece – called Percy Jackson’s Book of Greek Gods (2014), but this is for fans, not novices. This book can be read simply as a coming of age story of a boy capable of magic in some form – as in stories by authors as various as Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Lev Grossman or Alison Croggon to name but a few. And as in most of these coming of age stories, Percy has to learn how to use his magic gifts. As one blogger puts it, it’s about ‘what it is like to come to grips with the utterly fantastical and impossible in what was previously a very ordinary life; about how it feels to have destiny thrust upon you, and how one goes about making that destiny for oneself.’
Alternatively, you can enjoy picking up the references to the feats of the mythological Heroes. If you’re like me, and read all that stuff too many years ago to really remember it clearly, half-remembering can be a bit annoying, but there’s always Wikipedia, or Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, available from the Guttenberg Project. It’s a clever device by Riordan to call upon an ‘existing’ source of magic power, rather than have to make one up, and the associations do make it more fun. Percy’s god relatives wrangle among themselves like the gods of old; they are jealous, capricious and proud. As Percy says of the gods of old: ‘If you like horror shows, blood baths, lying, stealing, backstabbing, and cannibalism … it definitely was a Golden Age for all that ’ – and it still is.
One criticism of the book is that it has rather too much in common with other stories about magic, particularly the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter has Hogwarts, Percy Jackson has Camp Half Blood. Harry has Hermione, Percy has Annabeth. In both, the magic world exists alongside the ordinary one, but cannot be seen by normal humans. Percy’s magical sword only works on monsters, but disasters caused by magic can harm ordinary humans and have to be explained away– think of the destruction the death eaters cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And so on. But it’s probably sufficiently different, particularly in its American setting, with its gods rather than wizards, and different adventures, to appeal to a similar market.
Riordan seems to mass produce Percy and the various other spinoff series, and it shows in his episodic plotting and rather stereotyped characterisation. It’s all a bit too easy for Percy, and he can be annoyingly ignorant and brash. But some of the imagery of the underworld, and the role of the Harpies there, are good. They resonate for me not with scenes from Harry Potter, but with Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (2000), where Will and Lyra descend to the underworld. Pullman’s book – the third in the trilogy His Dark Materials – is a much more polished and literary work than Riordan’s Percy series ever tries to be. But in this section, the books bear comparison.
Anyway, as I said at the beginning, this is holiday reading, and perhaps something to tempt the children or grandchildren with, once they’ve finished with Harry Potter.
You can read more about Rick Riordan here.