No. 2: The Lightning Thief
I’ve loved Greek mythology since I first read the stories of Icarus and Narcissus. At some point in childhood I’d memorized the pantheon, the associated Roman names, and the slight differences between the Greek and Roman versions. Even Kevin Sorbo couldn’t ruin these stories for me.
So when my brother-in-law and I were seeing Avatar and I saw a preview for a movie about a young demigod, I was immediately intrigued. My family spends quite a bit of time in the children’s section of the local Barnes & Noble (they have a huge Thomas train set that my son adores), so I recognized the title of the series, Percy Jackson & the Olympians. I usually prefer to read the book before I see the movie when I can, so I picked it up.
This story bears quite a few similarities to Harry Potter—hardly a surprise considering the success of that series—but quite a few differences as well.(possible spoilers after the jump)
Our hero, Perseus Jackson, is an underachieving and underappreciated sixth grader. He’s struggling at school, is unpopular with his peers, and his step-father (“Smelly Gabe”) is a louse. His existence is no “cupboard under the stairs”, but it doesn’t seem pleasant, either.
Both Percy and Harry seem to get the short end. Unlike Harry, who is ever the victim, Percy’s troubles seem to be earned through mischief. But this all changes when he’s whisked away to “Camp Half-Blood”, summer training for demigods. Almost immediately he finds out that he is not only far from a failure, but he is special in a way no one expected.
At this point we see one of the major points of divergence between the worlds of Hogwarts and Camp Half-Blood. Harry Potter leaves his miserable life and enters a world where (nearly) everyone has magical abilities, but which is, aside from that, strikingly similar to our own world. There is social and economic stratification, racism, and political division. The most important factor that will be contrasted with Percy’s world is that for the students at Hogwarts, success is determined by skill, learning, hard work and attitude. You advance based on the strength of your will, sharpness of your mind, and the size of your heart.
But for Percy and the other demigods, this success is determined by one thing: birth. The children of Ares are strong, but hot-tempered and dull-minded. The children of Hermes are, as their father, “jack[s] of all trades, master[s] of none.” The children of Aphrodite are weak, while those of Hephaestus are natural blacksmiths. But none of these are as strong as the children of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades – the “Big Three.” This takes a major aspect of Potter’s world, the entire purpose of Hogwarts, really, and turns it on its head.
One major motif shared by both stories is that the protagonist learns early on that he’ll walk a fine line between glory and horror. While Harry slowly learns his fate through the years with small bits of prophecy and hints of darkness, Percy’s gloomy outlook is explicit: “I am sorry you were born, child. I have brought you a hero’s fate, and a hero’s fate is never happy. It is never anything but tragic.”
The story was enjoyable, and Riordan did a fine job of creating plausible scenarios (Camp Half-Blood is in New York because the gods follow the “spirit of the West”) and believable characters, except for Ares. This Ares is not the ancient god of war, but the dim-witted god of street thugs and biker gangs. If you decide to read this as an adult, just pretend the character is actually an adult child of Ares, it will work better.
The Lightning Thief is fun and well-constructed, and kept me interested throughout. At times I had to remind myself that it was written for young teens and preteens, but that wasn’t often. There were more times that I had to remind myself that the hero (and heroine) were only twelve. Percy Jackson no challenger to Harry Potter, but I’m looking forward to getting the next volume.