Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is a fantasy/adventure novel for kids/young adults which is heavily steeped in Greek mythology. If you're picking this out for a young reader, I would advise that you teach them some of the basics before they start the series. Sure, they might balk a bit at having to study something before they can read Percy Jackson, but try to emphasize all the sex and violence in the myths. That should get them interested. Percy might be an less explicit introduction to mythology, but as with many things for kids these days, it's probably better if they learn the real stuff before they embark on the series that twists it up. That said, Rick Riordan actually does a pretty good job of keeping the old mythology intact. But without knowing the real mythology beforehand, lots of things will fly over a reader's head.

Percy (short for Perseus) Jackson is in sixth grade, on the verge of getting kicked out of yet another private boarding school. He's got a bit of a temper and he's been diagnosed with ADHD and Dyslexia, which means that if he hasn't failed out of a class because of his poor work, he's been thrown out of it for his behavior. Trouble just seems to follow him, but despite this, he seems like quite a good kid at heart. He adores his mother, Sally, and it's the thought of her disappointment that drives his efforts to make each school work. He has only a vague memory of a smiling father, but Sally insists that Percy's father disappeared (lost at sea) before Percy was born. Despite this, Sally speaks very fondly of her short affair with Percy's father and Percy fervently wishes he could have known him. Since then, Sally married a boorish and dreadful man (Smelly Gabe, as Percy calls him) and despite her dreams of going to college and writing a novel, Sally works hard simply to pay for Percy's tuition. While off at his boarding school, the only class that seems to interest Percy is Latin, and that's only because their charismatic teacher, Mr. Brunner, expects more from Percy than any other teacher has expected of him before.

Of course, this is all background information for Percy, who is quickly hurtled into a new world when his math teacher transforms into a monster and tries to kill him. Some time later, Percy overhears his best friend, Grover, having a late night conversation with Mr. Brunner that suggests they're concerned for his safety. When the kids head home for summer, Grover starts to get a bit clingy, insisting that he accompany Percy home, but Percy shakes him off the first moment he can to run home for some time with his mom. (Side note: believe me, the Oedipal issues here are tempting, but even Riordan doesn't go there.)

As the reader with a basic idea of the book, we're prepared for what Percy will learn, even if he is not. Percy and his mom immediately take off for a weekend vacation to a cabin they frequently rent in Montauk (Percy is fairly certain that this place is special to his mother because he thinks this is where she met his father) Grover shows up with a monster on his tail (oh, and it turns out that Grover's a satyr, so pun intended). Percy's mother seems to know of a place where Percy will be safe (meanwhile Percy is thoroughly confused), though just before they reach it, Grover is hurt and Percy's mother is attacked/possibly killed by what appears to be the Minotaur. Percy then manages to kill the beast and drags Grover to safety, the image of his mother disappearing in thin air haunting his dreams. He wakes up at Camp Half-Blood where everything comes out. Percy is a demigod. The gods are real, even if people no longer believe in them. And all those tricks they got up to in the myths where they're sleeping around with humans? Yeah, they still do that. As a result, there are lots of half-human children about, though fewer make it to adolescence, given that they tend to attract the attention of evil forces and monsters. If they aren't killed, they wind up at Camp Half-Blood (often watched over and assisted by satyrs). The diagnosis of ADHD is a result of their heightened senses and the Dyslexia is because their brains are hardwired for Ancient Greek. That Latin teacher, Dr. Brunner? That would be Chiron, trainer of heroes, who's had his eye on Percy. His wheelchair was a magic concealment for the fact that he's a centaur. And the math teacher that Percy killed is one of the Furies. Got all that?

At Camp Half-Blood, demigods train to be the heroes their heritage destines them to be. But just because they know that some kid's a demigod (s/he found the camp and then didn't die when they fed him/her ambrosia), one exists in a bit of a limbo until one is "claimed" by the god in question, be it one of the Olympians or a lesser god. Given the camp's population, most gods seem to get around quite a bit, and as a result, there's a cabin for each of the Olympian gods. Only four cabins remain empty: the one for Artemis (she swore to remain a virgin), one for Hera (goddess of marriage and therefore no fooling around), one for Zeus and one for Poseidon. Now here you might be wondering, wait -- I know my mythology. Wasn't Zeus the biggest philanderer of all? Well, it turns out that "the Big Three" (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) made a pact after World War II (which turns out to have been Hades' kids against Zeus and Poseidon's) that they would no longer father any more illegitimate children, as their children tended to be even more powerful than the usual demigod. So Percy causes a bit of a stir when, after shortly remaining in limbo to learn the ropes of Camp Half-Blood, an incident with a beast makes it clear that he is the result of Poseidon breaking the pact. All hail Percy Jackson, son of the Sea God.

Despite his very recent introduction to all this, Percy immediately has to go on a quest as a result of some trouble on Olympus (currently located on the 600th floor of the Empire State Building). Apparently, Zeus' lightning bolt has been stolen and since gods cannot directly steal from other gods, Zeus thinks that Poseidon got his half-blood hero son Percy to snatch it for him. Meanwhile Poseidon is under the impression that he's been framed by their other brother, Hades, who would presumably stand to gain by a rift between Zeus and Poseidon. Zeus demands that there will be war if the bolt is not returned by the summer solstice and Poseidon declares the same if Zeus doesn't apologize for slandering him as a thief. This apparently means the gods need a sixth grader to sort all of this out, as they're all behaving like children. So Percy goes off on a quest with the idea of heading to the Underworld to retrieve the bolt (and quite possibly his mother) from Hades, along with Grover and a girl named Annabeth, a daughter of Athena who's been stuck at the camp since she was seven. As they trek across the country (because the entrance to the Underworld is naturally located in Los Angeles and since Zeus has it out for Percy, they can't exactly fly), they encounter various gods and monsters before the ultimate end battles. As this is the first of five Percy Jackson books, you can at least bet that Percy comes out alive from all this, even if things don't go according to plan.

As a lover of Greek mythology, I remember balking when Disney came out with the cartoon Hercules that would end up presenting an incorrect version of Greek mythology to kids. I eventually moved on (I was a sucker for Meg's song about not falling in love), but you can bet that the very first book I ever bought for my godson was Edith Hamilton's Mythology. (Though at the age of one, he didn't really skim through the book himself so much as he let us read to him from it for a few years.) Sure, the kids watching watered-down myths all probably get a bit confused when they eventually read the real ones (I try not to think of the kids who don't study mythology later on and end up thinking that Hercules really is the son of Zeus and Hera) but I suppose it's similar to kids getting the cleaned-up version of most history where the more complicated bits are breezed over so mommy and daddy don't need to explain what an illegitimate child is or why sailors really wanted to visit tantalizing islands of women. So imagine my surprise at Riordan's world where these kids are totally the products of illicit affairs, openly admitted, though perhaps not in those terms. The myths remain completely intact, Riordan's simply added on a bit of history to bring us up to date (like the World War II thing and a complicated bit of understanding that equates the residence of the gods with the height of Western civilization, thus leading to its present location in America).

Riordan is clearly a lover of Greek mythology first and a children's author second, because he didn't sugarcoat much of anything. He keeps a tone consistent with the myths themselves and not always found in books aimed towards a younger audience... namely, that life isn't fair, no gift comes without some strings attached, and the gods really don't care that much about humans. The idea of heroes in training is one thing, but all of these kids are dealing with the fact that they have at least one very absent parent who will toss a smile their way if they're lucky. Late in the book, a god insists that such distance is a result of the need to not show favoritism, but it was a pretty sad moment when Percy looks at a cabin full of kids to see that many of them were unclaimed by gods who couldn't be bothered to remember if they had produced a child. And then there's the human who's been seduced by a god, ditched, and is now a single parent to an abnormal child. Percy's mom, despite being a wonderful woman, is still a girl who got knocked up and abandoned by a man who she continues views as an ideal. Given the fact that Posideon isn't running around as much as he used to, Percy and his mother can still believe that she was special, but think of all the other gods' children who have a host of half-siblings to deal with. Percy got off lucky. His mother is a wonderful person, but when you're looking at how poor they are, with Sally married to Smelly Gabe (who is clearly abusive even if it takes Percy a while to realize this)... it was enough to be furious at Poseidon for not doing a thing to help her out. As we learn more about the other demigods, every family seems to have some complications and every child needs to find a way to deal with their existence. Whether it's the search to be recognized by their parent or bitterness at being ignored, Camp Half-Blood is overflowing with the potential drama of ignored children. (Btw, I'm gonna doubt that we get into this during the course of the Percy Jackson books, but I'd be curious about the role of birth control. I mean, is it useless in the face of potential demigod spawning activities or is there just a lot of unsafe sex being practiced here? What kind of message does this send to kids who read this?)

When it comes to updating the myths, I was alternately pleased and disappointed. Mostly, though, I thought Riordan was clever in updating things. Percy had studied mythology, so usually caught on just in time to avoid being captured, eaten, or turned to stone. Given his namesake, I actually expected Medusa to play a much larger role than she did, but perhaps we'll see "Aunty Em" return. I particularly liked his encounter with "Crusty" (aka Procrustes) towards the end of Percy's journey, much as Procrustes was the last adventure that Theseus had as he made his way to Athens. I'm still a little confused with Percy's vision of the Fates knitting these giant socks, because they snipped the yarn, which means someone is supposed to die, but no one did, so either Grover freaked out for nothing/the Fates got it wrong or someone else died that wasn't in the direct storyline, which is kind of annoying. The good thing out of all this is the knowledge that there's plenty of Greek myths to go around, so even though this seemed like it referenced a heck of a lot of stories, Percy will surely encounter many more. For kids reading this, it offers many small sections of action and adventure, rather than simply building up to just one scene, so I imagine that it would be satisfying for children to read in many sessions.

The big criticism I have for this book is true for every post-Harry Potter series where you have kids grouped together because of a specific secret they all share. I kept getting flashes of the Harry Potter equivalent to things in Percy's world. The twelve cabins at Camp Half-Blood were like the four houses of Hogwarts (and they wouldn't have needed to wait for some sign of the god claiming a child if they had a Sorting Hat). Chiron was like Dumbledore, a kindly educator who has been around for quite some time and sees something special in Percy. Charon pulls a Hermione by explicitly teaching the reader how to say his name. Annabeth/Hermione is the very intelligent girl and Grover/Ron is the well-meaning, but slightly bumbling guy friend. Heck, even the name "Percy" isn't that far off from "Harry." That said, there's always going to be ample points for comparison in every coming of age story for young people and I think that with the firm grounding in Greek mythology, Riordan has at least staked out his own territory.

Riordan packs a lot into this book and you can tell that he's laid the groundwork for the whole series here. Grover wants to be a Seeker and find Pan; Percy makes an enemy of a god; a darker force threatens the structure of everything; a villain escapes; Percy becomes distinctly aware of his potential role as a pawn in the games of the gods. I read The Lightning Thief in a few hours and I can already tell that I'll keep reading to find out what other things are in store for Perseus Jackson. And since my godson already knows the real myths, I'll have no problem endorsing these books as a fun, modern follow-up.

Oh, and here's a link to the trailer for the upcoming movie. (As a result of having seen the trailer before reading the books, I totally pictured Pierce Brosnan as Chiron throughout the book and I'm not sure if that was a good thing.)

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