The Sweet Far Thing

Well, it's over. The Sweet Far Thing is the last in this trilogy of books by Libba Bray that depict young women in Victorian England with access to magical realms (creatively called "the realms") and yet don't have any idea what to do with this magic, so they spend three books trying to figure that out while dodging all adult advice/manipulation. Of course, just because it's the last book doesn't mean that it's a fast conclusion. Oh no. You've got 819 pages to savor the end of the series. It's Harry Potter proportions... only I haven't found this series to be anywhere near as compelling.

Here's the thing. It's the third book, so if you've made it through the first two, it means that you either (a) love these books and so you're excited or (b) are like me and have an obsessive need to finish what you've begun. Either way, you're probably going to read it, having made it this far, so I don't feel like I need to sell anyone on this.

Gemma is still seventeen, in her last few months attending Spence's boarding school for young ladies, and she's still trying to decide what to do with this power she's been given -- and everyone else is quick to demand that she hand it over. The Order, the Rakshana, Circe... yes, I know that Gemma thought she killed her in book two, but as you know if you've read these books, people who have been killed aren't nearly as dead as they should be when the realms are concerned. Pippa, who was already lost to the realms, is now assured that she's certainly stuck there and her own sense of self-importance is fanned by a coterie of adoring girls (victims of a factory fire also stuck in this limbo) who might not be cultured, but worship Pip. Circe is still somehow present in the realms' temple and all too easily works her way into Gemma's confidence. (Um, Gemma? This woman is responsible for your mom's death. Remember that?) And then there's Amar, the brother of Gemma's love interest, Kartik, and member of the Rakshana. He's prowling around as a corrupted being like Pippa and he seems to be commanding an army of Winterlands creatures in a bid to keep the magic for their own use. How are the mighty fallen.

Of course, Gemma has to come a long way before she realizes that curtsying correctly for her presentation to Queen Victoria is not exactly something she can compare with all the difficult decisions ahead. It's too easy for Gemma to use magic for her own purposes... whether that's making her family a little happier or making herself seem more powerful and wanted by Simon to upset his father, a member of the Rakshana. Sure, she's a teenager, but even she should know better by this point. When it comes down to the big decisions, a lot of them are made off the cuff, without much forethought. Spur of the moment things that are meant to show bravery or somesuch nonsense, but really just seem to suggest that no one can think ahead.

Suffice to say that since this is the last book, we finally have some resolutions about things. The Felicity/Pippa connection (if you haven't figured out that they're not just friends by now, then I'm not sure that you actually read the previous two books) is built up to this huge unveiling, but since that seemed obvious, it was a bit annoying... and particularly annoying is Fee's absolute conviction in her inclinations. Being only a teenager at this time period, I should think that she would still be figuring it all out as opposed to being so convinced of her orientation. Those looking for Gemma and Kartik to finally get together should feel pleased... for a few minutes. Kartik's utter devotion to Gemma might seem unrealistic, but given the out-of-the-ordinary circumstances that unite them, I accepted it as sweet and chivalrous, because at least you knew he had struggled with his decisions. Though the fact that they get together before we're close to the finale should be your first indication that nothing can end well. It did, however, annoy me that Bray settled on the path that allows their love (which could probably never exist in the real world outside the realms, given the time period) but takes the easy way out as far as resolutions go. Ultimately, I have a hard time seeing how all this trouble can be attributed to anything but Gemma's inability to make up her mind and part with her powers. She acts much younger than her age, particularly given how most everyone else around her seems capable of rising to their challenges. She may be the narrator and thus, the one we are supposed to identify with and root for, but my sympathy for Gemma only goes so far.

As for the writing, I feel as though Bray isn't quite where she needs to be. She moves much too quickly through her descriptions, particularly as it concerns the action. It's as though she assumed by writing quickly, we'd hurry through it and the only important part, really, is the outcome so we'll focus on that instead. And that's an odd feeling to have... for eight hundred or so pages. Even three lengthy books didn't seem enough to encompass an adequate description of this fantasy world that Bray created. I would have preferred a storyline much more compact in its scope and more detail about the realms. Or if epic was the objective, then something else needed to give way. I felt as though very few decisions were made... which rather makes me equate Gemma with Libba Bray in that sense.

If you enjoyed the series up to now, you'll probably still like it because you're predisposed to such a decision. If you're on the fence, then I think you might be swayed towards annoyance. I do appreciate Bray's expansive imagination that allows for such fantastic creations, but ultimately I think she needs to learn that writing is about making choices... which seems to be the lesson that she's trying to teach Gemma throughout this trilogy, so it would be a good one to take to heart.



Oh dear. Perhaps it's my own failing and there's something I fail to understand about the real motivations for writing, but I find it hard to believe that when Ann Herendeen set out to write this homoerotic slash version of Pride and Prejudice that this published result really conveys the exact sentiments to the reader that she intended. I can understand the creative ambition that would drive a writer to put some kind of twist on a Jane Austen novel... they're classic and amazing and many readers love to explore new twists or sequels. And I can even understand why folks might write slash fiction for their favorite characters. But then there's Pride/Prejudice, which seems as though it's using the classic novel to advocate for a bisexual/open relationship telling, but still remains oddly biased and limiting. Really, all Herendeen wanted to create with this telling was bisexual porn that seems to advocate male love over female love? The basic story follows the plot of the standard Pride and Prejudice but behind-the-scenes motivations are all a bit different for our three main couples. Darcy isn't as convinced of the Bennets unsuitability for his friend Bingley so much as he wants to keep Bingley to himself, as his young and pliable gay lover. Wickham used to be Darcy's lover back in the day, and it broke Darcy's heart when Wickham ended it and said he only did it so he could get money out of Darcy... and then tried to seduce Darcy's sister, too. Lydia's a slut-- oh wait, that's the same, never mind. Lizzy is repulsed that Charlotte would consider marrying Mr. Collins but is partially jealous that Charlotte could give up Lizzy, her gay-lover-but-not-quite-because-apparently-women-don't-have-the-same-attachments-that-men-do-when-it-comes-to-same-sex-couples? There's something a bit confusing in this logic and I'm not quite sure what to do with it, as clearly Herendeen has no problems when it comes to gay couples... but she seems to imply that female couples just don't last? Apparently love between two male friends is this Greek ideal and is the highest level of love that can be attained... but women are just kind of playing around? Um, what?

Then there's the issue of committed relationships versus open ones... and if Herendeen was trying to make a bid for more open relationships when it comes to sex, then I'm not sure she achieved her goal. Things seem to wind up where Bingley and Darcy get to have their cake and eat it, too, but the ladies are totally satisfied with their husbands. Even while I'm glad we don't delve into incestuous sisters, it still seems to be a bit unfair. Lizzy finds out pretty early what's going on between Bingley and Darcy (and evidently so does Jane, as Bingley confesses it to her during their courtship). Bingley is not as committed to such a homosexual lifestyle as Darcy and lashes out at Darcy a few times while Darcy tries to ignore Bingley's insistence and keep him under his... well, let's just say thumb. Darcy is presented as a very selfish woman-hater who coerces Bingley into keeping up their sexual activity long after Bingley has expressed a wish to end things. Bingley's love for Jane seems a bit more likely as opposed to Darcy's love for Elizabeth, which hinges on her ability to converse with him as an equal (and is semi-sparked when he originally thinks that her body resembles that of a boy). Darcy seems to learn more about honesty and openness and forgiveness and not-hating-women as a result of his struggle over loving Elizabeth, but I'm not quite sure that I buy it. Ultimately, the gentlemen marry their lady-loves, but there's a bit of a rift between the two couples before the wedding when Jane learns that Darcy was responsible for keeping Bingley and Jane apart when she was in London. The anger is uncharacteristic of Jane, but then, Herendeen doesn't quite present the same Lizzy and Jane that we all know. Ultimately, after a month of marriage-sanctioned sex, the couples reunite... and with their wives' blessing, Darcy and Bingley get to have their ideal male love while still having perfect marriages. Lizzy and Jane, however, remain completely devoted to their husbands... and while Jane blossoms into rational and sweet womanhood, Lizzy's conversation makes her appear somewhat bitter and whiny once she starts having children. The only pro-lesbian pairing is Anne de Bourgh and Charlotte Collins, but Anne isn't interested in the sexual side of things and even agrees to a very gay husband, as she just wants to be left in peace.

I read this book in the space of time that it took the Super Bowl to occur, as I had a quiet apartment to myself and a friend had presented me with an advanced reading copy of this novel. At least it was a fast read? And free? Seriously, I don't recommend spending money or much time on this particular book, because even if the idea of gay sex in P&P is new, it's not all that interesting... or if it is interesting, it's interesting for the hypocrisy and ridiculousness. In the beginning, things seemed to move along quite quickly -- thankfully, Herendeen didn't see the need to re-hash every scene from the original Austen with her new motivations threaded through (à la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Instead, she tends to occupy the space between the existing scenes -- so I thought we might get through the original story rather quickly and then Herendeen could stake out her own territory in the post-wedding storyline. Not so. We get bogged down when Darcy and Caroline accompany Bingley to London. Bingley mopes around, forming a platonic friendship with Georgiana, and Darcy takes up with a men's club that specializes in his particular sexual preferences. The amount of time spent on this club seemed ridiculously unnecessary and bizarre until I noticed that Hendereen has written another novel that features that club that she felt the need to link into the P&P plotline. Clearly, this was all set up for the writer's delight and the reader just has to trudge through. There was only one moment in the book where I laughed, and that was when the fellows at the homosexual club mentioned a fellow named Henry Tilney -- the male lead in Northanger Abbey who is so foppish that it's likely he was gay, despite marrying Catherine Morland. If someone wanted to explore the homosexual past of a character, Henry Tilney would be the prime candidate.

If you expect any kind of interesting statements about alternative lifestyles or homosexual relationships, then you've come to the wrong place. But I guess I was wrong to expect that in the first place. This is the only book of slash fiction that I've ever read and evidently it just isn't my thing -- I can't quite wrap my head around the fact that apparently most slash fiction is written by heterosexual women (according to that final say on all research, Wikipedia). But whatever floats your boat, I suppose. As far as the genre goes, I have no idea if this is the norm or any good, but if you're looking for a ridiculous pornographic re-telling of Pride and Prejudice that requires little-to-no thought on your part and focuses on the gay sex more than straight sex, then you've found exactly what you're looking for. I might also recommend Linda Berdoll's Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (originally published as The Bar Sinister), which has a more substantial story, but also features Mr. Darcy and his new bride having lots of sex. But if you're looking for a clever and sexy re-telling of Pride and Prejudice... well... keep looking.

The Aviary Gate

The Aviary Gate by Kate Hickman is a lush narrative that reaches back into the sultan's harem of Constantinople, 1599, to relate a bittersweet story of loyalty, love, and loss. Elizabeth is a modern day grad student at Oxford, entangled with a rake and researching captivity narratives for a bid at an MPhil. She stumbles upon some clues that suggest an Englishwoman named Celia Lamprey survived a shipwreck in the late 1500s only to be sold as a slave into the Ottoman sultan's harem. Elizabeth's quest to learn more about the fate of Celia (and to disentangle herself from her own emotional enslavement to a man who doesn't deserve her) takes her from Oxford to Istanbul and while definitive proof can rarely survive four hundred years, sometimes history can reach out and speak to you.

The Aviary Gate goes back and forth between a few months in Elizabeth's present day story and a few days in Celia's narrative. While one might picture luxury and decadence in the harem, Hickman focuses on the lies and secrecy that permeate what is, essentially, a cage for the many women kept at the beck and call of a single sultan. I suppose it's not surprising to suggest that women have been catty for centuries, but it's particularly apparent in a story that features such treachery and backstabbing as women vie to become the Haseki, or favorite concubine of the sultan. There is also the possibility for incredible loyalty between individuals, but that pales in comparison to the terrible bits. When Celia learns that her old fiancee, Paul Pindar, is in Constantinople and might be aware of the fact that she survived the shipwreck... well, it puts her on a desperately hopeful track that ruins any chance she had of embracing the life she's been given in the harem. Hickman keeps the reader on the edge of her seat, wondering if there's any chance that this story might have a happy ending, and ultimately she produces a novel whose strength is in the historical details if not the character relationships.

At one point in the novel, a Turkish academic asks a rather perfectly apt question of Elizabeth: "What is this western obsession with harems?" Clearly the allure is for the sensual aspects, which the novel seems to savor at the beginning, but Hickman quickly veers away from such as complications arise. While Elizabeth's love life takes a turn for the better (she forgets the ass back home and meets up with a desirable Turkish man), Celia has been steadily dipping into a loss of hope as she clings to a simple desire of seeing Paul one last time even if he cannot save her. Hickman really does paint a vivid picture of the Ottoman Empire and the possible lives of women who were lost to the sultan's harem. It's not surprising that an author noted for her nonfiction work would take such care to thoroughly research the period, but all the effort is quite clear. The shift from risque to bittersweet was a bit rough, though, and I found it to be disappointing, as though Hickman wanted to provide some salacious or frightening bits but truly wanted to tell a tragic love story, too, which left things feeling a bit lopsided. There's no creschendo to the tragic love story -- Paul and Celia never speak, Celia never becomes a favorite of the sultan, we don't know if Celia gets to see Paul, we don't see Paul leave Constantinople, we don't see if Celia is executed for her reckless actions. We know that Paul survived and mourned her loss, but that's about it, and we're left unsatisfied.

Given the separation of Celia and Paul, not just by palace walls but by time (for it's been two years since Paul gave Celia up as drowned), it's not surprising that their love story is a bit one-note. We never get to see them interact, so each is simply harboring an image of the other that has been idealized over time. Paul is simply grieving on all levels and Celia seems a bit broken, even as she hopes that she might escape the harem. In novels, one generally finds characters who are willing to take extreme chances in order to change their lives, and even if they fail, they have at least made an attempt. Paul and Celia both abandon the quest quite easily as they understand the odds they're up against. It might be realistic, but it was also quite sad. Celia may have been a much more substantial character as opposed to Paul, but his lack of substance was surprising. My own interpretation was that Paul didn't love Celia enough to risk everything for her and Celia was abandoned to her fate, which quite probably includes drowning... the irony being that everyone originally assumed she had drowned when the ship went down. This time, she'd be tied into a sack and tossed from the palace walls to drown in the river if she was caught trying to open the Aviary Gate so she could see Paul again.

If you're looking for a glimpse at a fascinating time period, then Hickman certainly delivers there, but quite honestly, I would suggest checking out her nonfiction work before you turn to The Aviary Gate.


The Last Olympian

The final Percy Jackson book! Well, maybe. Sort of. I mean, come on... we all saw it coming. The Last Olympian may be the final book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, but that doesn't mean that Rick Riordan will not continue to produce books that feature Percy, the gods, and Camp Half-Blood. After all, who can argue with this kind of success? And even without picking up the books, one knows that Percy Jackson is aimed towards a younger audience than Harry Potter, so there's less of a question about his survival, despite a fairly scary sounding prophesy. I think that the average reader can reasonably assume that while there's going to be some bloodshed in this book (there's a war going on, after all), ultimately we'll finish up with a fairly intact cast.

It's been a rough year for everyone as things get closer and closer to a war between gods and Titans... and Percy's sixteenth birthday, which could be just as bad. After all, there's that prophesy looming that suggests a child of the Big Three (either Zeus, Poseidon, or Hades) will have a decision to make on which the future of Olympus hangs. At last count, there were only four possible candidates (Percy's half-brother Tyson, a Cyclops, doesn't seem to be eligible) and don't worry, a new child of the Big Three will not suddenly pop up in this book to sacrifice him/herself. Since Thalia joined the Hunters of Artemis (freezing herself forever as an immortal fifteen-year-old), Bianca died, and Nico is still too young, all eyes are on Percy and we open with a week to go before the big day. There will be Titans, monsters, a spy, a kiss or two, a lot of battles, and we finally get to hear the last part of the prophesy that has been kept from Percy. Let's just say that there was actually a good reason for that and things don't look too hopeful for the kid who's got this destiny if they're interpreting it correctly. Ah, but there is the key to it all, right?

If you don't know your Greek mythology by the time you've reached the fifth book in this series, seriously, what's wrong with you? You're making Edith Hamilton cry. For those of you who do know your mythology, then you'll note that history tends to repeat itself and this war is stacking up to look like the original war between gods and Titans. A few key players are switching sides or abstaining, but since we've already read four books about the half-blooded children of the gods, then we all know that the true balance will rest with the demi-gods. Much of this book (and the outcome of the war) reflects on the relationships between half-bloods and their parents, which drives them to side with them or against them. It's not surprising that Riordan (who created the whole Percy Jackson story for his son) is deeply concerned about the relationship between parents and their children, but he's really rested the crux of this war on the way the gods have conducted themselves with their offspring.

Percy is wrapping up the summer with a short trip to the beach, accompanied by his mom, Paul (now his stepdad), and his friend Rachel (the redheaded mortal who can see through the Mist to immortal events). She extends Percy an invitation to come with her family on vacation and asks if she's ever going to get a kiss from Percy -- when he's called away to help destroy the Princess Andromeda, a cruise ship full of monsters and the headquarters of Kronos, the Titan leading the fight against the gods. Kronos looks like Luke these days, haven taken over the body of the half-blood son of Hermes. (Remember that Luke used to be a friend to Percy, Annabeth, and Thalia, but they fear they have lost him entirely to the "dark side" when he ran off to raise Kronos, and now they might be too late to save him.) While Percy and Charlie Beckendorf (a son of Hephaestus) succeed in destroying the cruise ship, Kronos lives and Charlie does not make it out alive. After a brief recuperation time in his father's palace at the bottom of the ocean, where Percy witnesses the underwater war that his father is waging against Oceanus, Percy returns to camp with sad tidings. Charlie's girlfriend Silena (a daughter of Aphrodite) is devastated and Clarisse (a daughter of Ares) tries to keep her friend from losing it, though the children of Ares and the children of Apollo have been feuding over some spoils from a battle. Grover's been MIA for a while, as he's been trying to spread the word that while Pan is dead, it's now up to everyone else to try and protect the Wild. And Annabeth... well, Annabeth is clearly under a lot of stress what with Percy's mortal not-quite-girlfriend and her own feelings for Luke, who was like a (really hot) brother to her. (On the bright side, she's been reading through Daedalus's laptop -- he left it to her when he sacrificed his own life at the end of the last book so the Labyrinth might die with him -- which has all manner of inventions within, and while she's barely cracked the surface, she's learned enough for some new tricks in this book to appear.) Top it all off, there seems to be a spy in the camp who's relaying information to Kronos.

Things are looking pretty desperate and the gods really aren't helping matters. They're off fighting the Titan Typhon, who is slowly making his way to New York, and Zeus refuses to consider that Kronos might be using that as a distraction so Olympus will be unprotected. Poseidon hasn't been helping in the fight against Typhon because he's been dealing with his own battle. Thus, it's up to Percy and his friends to hold down Manhattan and protect Olympus when Kronos shows up early with an army of immortals at his command. In the bid to get the upper hand, Percy decides to take Nico up on a risky plan -- namely, dipping Percy in the River Styx to give him the Achilles heel treatment, rendering him nearly invincible save for one weak spot. Percy realizes that this is what Luke must have done to support Kronos taking over his body. (Throughout the course of the book, we learn more about Luke's family and what drove him to make the choices he did.) While Nico argues with his father, Hades, that they should join the battle on earth, Percy helps rally the half-blood forces, supported by other lesser immortals like dryads, satyrs, and the Hunters of Artemis, led by Thalia. The children of Ares refuse to participate when they claim that they are not given due credit for their battle contributions. They remain at Camp Half-Blood while the others head to the Empire State Building, where Olympus can be accessed from the 600th floor. They must protect Olympus at all costs, or Kronos will be able to destroy the seat of the gods and all of western civilization will crumble with it. The epic battle is brought to Manhattan, fought in the very streets of the city, while the mortals are put under a sleeping spell by Morpheus, who has sided with Kronos. Annabeth learned from Daedalus's laptop that many of the statues in New York are automatons, able to serve as warriors when activated... which makes for some intriguing situations of famous New York statues springing to life to assist in the fray (my favorite was when the lions in front of the New York Library are activated to help destroy a flying pig). Percy and his friends fight on bridges, in Central Park, and in the streets, trying to defeat the enemy and save as few prone mortals as possible.

Riordan strings out the war with a series of battles, resulting in bursts of action and then short periods of conference where everyone tries to figure out what to do next. All of the events take place over the period of about a week, so this might be the most fast-paced of all the Percy Jackson books. While this is to its credit for younger readers, speeding through to the conclusion, older readers might be a bit disappointed with the lack of forethought that is somewhat characteristic of this series. We might have a prophesy that held everything together, but each book comes up with its own events that you can't foresee and even the endings tend to rest on ideas that pop out of nowhere, without much foreshadowing. Ultimately, though, the book is quite enjoyable and young readers in particular should be pleased with the outcome of this book and the series.

From this point on, there will be spoilers. If you don't want to know what happens to Percy and his crew, then stop reading now. This means you, kids. Trust me, you'll enjoy it. As for the adults, I'm sure you can see what's coming.

Unsurprisingly, it all ends happily, though I admit I was hoping that Riordan would make some tough choices and kill off more characters than he did. Rachel has a large role to play, despite only showing up in the third book. She's been having strange visions and even though she goes off with her family on vacation, she convinces her father that she has to return to Manhattan. There, Percy brings Rachel up to the safety of Olympus, where she joins Hestia (the titular last Olympian, left to guard the hearth up in Olympus) and ultimately assumes her destined role as the Oracle of Delphi (which had been cursed by Hades and drove Luke's mom mad when she attempted to assume the position of Oracle). Now that Percy has been dipped in the Styx, he's a fearsome fighter, but it's not always enough. Prometheus, who has sided with Kronos, gives Percy a "gift" -- the jar of Pandora, with Hope trapped inside. He tells Percy that if he decides to release Hope, then Kronos will let Percy and his friends live. Percy tries to keep the jar far away, but is repeatedly tempted by it until he gives it as an offering to Hestia, goddess of the hearth, because Hope thrives best at home.

Lots of demi-gods die but the larger whole is saved repeatedly by last-minute reinforcements. First, it's Chiron leading the Party Ponies -- chapters all across the country have streamed in to assist. Then it's the children of Ares, led by... Silena, daughter of Aphrodite? Silena, feeling useless in battle and desperate to do something to help the cause, returned to Camp Half-Blood; when she was unable to convince Clarisse to lead her cabin into battle, Silena took a cue from Patroclus (think Trojan War, cousin of Achilles). She stole Clarisse's armor, rallied the cabin, and led them into battle. Clarisse then follows them, but like Patroclus, Silena ends up dying. She reveals at the last minute that she was the spy, feeding information to Luke, because he claimed it would save lives. Enraged with the death of her friend, Clarisse single-handedly brings down a terrifying drakon and causes Kronos's army to fall back before the ultimate battle. The final group of reinforcements to help save the day is an army of the dead, led by Nico and Hades (along with his wife, Persephone, and mother-in-law, Demeter). Hades has finally been persuaded by his son that his realm will also be in jeopardy if the Titans win, or perhaps it was simply the irritation of being trapped with his mother-in-law, rambling on about cereal, that drove him above ground.

Rachel foresaw that a child of Ares would have to kill the monster, giving her some credibility, which is why Percy freaks out a bit when she tells him that he is not the hero of the prophesy. Of course, he's very much part of the prophesy -- he is the child of the Big Three who has to make a decision, but he's not the hero that ends up dead. Percy contacts his father, persuading him to abandon the fight against Oceanus to join the other gods in stopping Typhon before he strikes New York. Tyson helps lead the Cyclopes into battle and the Greek gods finally succeed in bringing down the Titan. Grover and the satyrs score a major victory when their nature magic (which, let's face it, we all figure is semi-lame) is able to entrap the Titan Hyperion in a maple tree in Central Park. With all the battles and all the losses, in the end,it's Grover, Annabeth, and Percy who will stand against Kronos. Annabeth tries to appeal to Luke, believing that he's still somewhere inside the body that Kronos has inhabited, and ultimately, she's right. Luke is the hero of the prophesy who will end up dying, fighting against Kronos's occupation of his body. With Percy's choice to give him his blade, Luke kills himself so that Kronos will be destroyed, too.

The gods arrive to find that Kronos has been defeated, but since he is a Titan, he will ultimately regenerate at some point, though that might take ages. They resume their thrones on Olympus (and even the gods who don't have thrones, like Hades, stick around for a bit) and favors are distributed. Tyson is recognized for his service and promoted to be a General in the Olympian army (and he'll also have "a big stick" as his weapon of choice). Grover is awarded a spot on the Council of Cloven Elders and is now the new Lord of the Wild. Annabeth is charged with rebuilding Olympus, fulfilling her dream to create monuments that will survive for eons. And Percy is offered the chance to become an immortal god... which he turns down when he realizes that being frozen at seventeen might not be all it's cracked up to be if it means leaving behind his half-blood friends (and Annabeth in particular). Instead, he uses this chance to make the gods promise that they will always claim their children before they reach thirteen. The war was largely made possible due to the neglect of the gods, whose unclaimed children felt betrayed and ignored. Percy also insists that cabins should be made for all children of the gods, not just the Olympian twelve. The book ends with Annabeth and Percy finally getting a kiss that isn't immediately followed by a battle. Percy starts his sophomore year and Annabeth starts to attend a boarding school in New York so she can better monitor the progress of building in Olympus... and be close to Percy. As Rachel assumes the role of the Oracle, she gives a prophesy... which Apollo declares must be the next Great Prophesy. And while the last one took years to come about... we're left with the feeling that this one might come about a bit sooner.

Riordan really has created a great series that's full of action and adventure... yet hopefully, it will inspire a love of history in a generation of kids. His inventive use of Greek mythology meant that there really was no need to worry about Harry Potter comparisons once things got rolling. I've also got to hand it to Riordan for not shying away from the less savory bits of Greek mythology... his audience is a bit younger, so one wouldn't be too surprised if he sugar-coated a bit of the affairs -- particularly when you're dealing with lots of male gods who couldn't keep it in their togas and that's the of these these half-blood heroes. In this book, we get flashbacks where Hades and Hermes are both seen with the mortal mother of their children, and both gods are shockingly tender and loving to these women. Riordan might have made things a bit easy there for younger readers to show that these didn't appear to be one-night stands. Of course, at the end of the fourth book, when Poseidon showed up for Percy's fifteenth birthday party, things were a bit awkward (after all, Percy's mother's boyfriend was there, too), but overall, there don't seem to be a whole lot of bad feelings towards the mortals who have children with the gods. They sometimes have tragic fates (aka Luke's mom who was driven insane), but usually things seem okay. Well, except for Thalia's mom, who apparently drank a lot and died in a car accident, but aside from that one.

Continuing on the topic of parent-child relationships, I think that might be the most fascinating bit about the series. Riordan conceived of Percy Jackson after he ran out of Greek myths to tell his son, so he came up with modern versions. For a father writing stories that had their beginnings with his son, it's not surprising that the parent-child bond/struggle is prominent. It shows up in practically every bit of motivation. Heroes trying to prove themselves to their parents; half-bloods getting bitter about not being claimed; Percy trying to stay safe for his mortal mother and being such a good son; gods unable to interfere in the fates of their children; the question of what makes a good parent and how one's love can be mistaken; Nico feeling like he and his father have no place amongst the Olympians; Ethan, son of Nemesis, trying to understand what his role is as a child of the goddess of vengeance and balance; Chiron standing up to his father, Kronos; Thalia rejecting her status as a daughter of Zeus to take up a role in Artemis's Hunters; Annabeth struggling with her understanding of "family" after running away from her father and then coming to find Thalia and Luke; Hades finally coming to realize that if nothing else, he agrees with his siblings that Kronos was a terrible father... I could keep going and going. I didn't ever feel like Riordan was trying to lecture me on proper parenting. If anything, Percy lectures the gods a bit on just this topic, but only so far as it extended to recognizing their children and recognizing every half-blood as important, no matter their parentage.

I'll confess that I was a bit disappointed with Percy's refusal of immortality, not for the fact of it, but because it was so obviously done for Annabeth that I felt like I was watching the Disney cartoon of Hercules and we'd get a reprise of "Where I Belong" as Hercules chooses Meg over an immortal life. It's the obvious ending, but somehow, I thought it could be made to be a bit more original. Ah well. It's still charming, if predictable, and one only wonders how Percy will deal with hormones and sex now that he's sixteen and in a stable relationship. He's such a clueless gentleman that it was a bit unrealistic; he might have been a bit confused when it came to Rachel vs. Annabeth at first, but we all knew who would triumph in the end, provided she didn't die. I suppose the kid did have other things to worry about, but really, Riordan might have allowed the gods to sleep around, but there was no touching upon that idea when it came to their half-blooded children. Also on the list of somewhat disappointing things: Pandora's jar. I rather like the Pandora myth and while the jar plays a crucial role, I thought it was underused. Also underused were characters like Achilles and certain Titans. I suppose that Riordan has to keep a few things tucked away if he's going to write another series, though, so perhaps they'll reappear.

Originally, I started reading these books with the excuse that I was reading to screen them for my godson. He's a little young for these books right now, I think, but I'll still pass them along and send him some cash so he can take his mom out to see the first Percy Jackson movie when it comes out soon. Hopefully he'll appreciate the Greek mythology and with the help of his parents, we can get him hooked on history. If nothing else, that's the real value in these books -- Riordan's enthusiasm for the myths is infectious and I hope it inspires a generation of readers to enjoy the stories. If you're looking for a series of books that's enthralling and captivating, but your young reader is just a little too young to appreciate Harry Potter, then I think you've found the right thing to help get them there. While operating at a slighter lower reading level, there's still great depth for the reader who wants it (though that mostly points to the real myths). The characters aren't terribly complicated and these books don't function on the premise that you've got all the clues to figure out the riddle by the end of the book. Usually, the kids are flailing along and stumble upon a solution. Just the same, they're fun and fast-paced. I enjoyed them and if Riordan comes out with another series that features Percy, Annabeth, and their friends... well, if my godson doesn't beat me to them at that point, then I think he can bet that I'll hand them along to him once I'm finished.


The Battle of the Labyrinth

It's nonstop action in The Battle of the Labyrinth, the fourth book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Percy's nearly fifteen, even more of a teenager than before, and still waiting to figure out if he's the one mentioned in the prophesy that might lead to his death when he turns sixteen.

In the first chapter, Percy destroys yet another high school, this time without even enrolling. He might be able to shrug this one off if it wasn't for the fact that it's the school where Mr. Blofis teachers, his mother's boyfriend who pulled some strings to get Percy an invitation. After defeating monster empousai cheerleaders with the help of redheaded mortal Rachel Elizabeth Dare (who Percy met in the last book at Hoover Dam), Percy and a very jealous Annabeth return to Camp Half-Blood just in time to witness Grover's hearing at the Council of Cloven Elders, where he's on trial for spreading rumors that Pan has called to him. He's given a week to prove himself and find Pan (a task that no satyr has been able to do) or his searcher's license will be revoked, but there are many other quests and trials to be taken on, too.

A new swordmaster named Quintus is at Camp Half-Blood, along with his pet hellhound Mrs. O'Leary. Despite his pleasant exterior, though, Percy is warned to keep an eye on this newcomer who might not be what he appears. Nico, son of Hades, is still missing, but Percy keeps getting visions of the young demigod summoning ghosts (with sacrifices of sodas and Happy Meals) in the hopes of communicating with his dead sister, Bianca. The ghost that is helping young Nico, however, may not have the boy's interests at heart -- which is confirmed when they discover that the ghost is Minos. We also learn that the labyrinth, originally created by Daedalus, has expanded to stretch across the United States, and Luke may have found a way through that would enable his army of monsters to explode upon Camp Half-Blood. Annabeth is given the quest to find Daedalus's workshop, acquire Ariadne's string, and convince the inventor (if he's still alive) that he must help them stop Luke from navigating the labyrinth. Annabeth takes Percy, Grover, and Tyson along on her quest, but everyone's quests ultimately come together as the young heroes navigate the twists and turns of the labyrinth... and they find that sometimes, even demigods need the help of a mortal.

There's a bit of tension between Percy and Annabeth as their teenage selves try to figure out just how they feel about the other -- and this gets further complicated when they each have the pain of other loves to deal with, despite their young ages. Annabeth has not yet given up on Luke, who appears to everyone else as completely lost to Kronos. Percy nearly dies and finds himself nursed back to health by Calypso, who offers him the tantalizing prospect of staying with her on her island forever, escaping his prophesy. Grover, too, has acquired a girlfriend -- a dryad named Juniper -- and he manages to complete his quest for Pan, even if the outcome is not what he desired. Even Clarisse, the bullying daughter of Ares, seems to have a love story as she struggles to save one of the half-bloods who turned to side with Luke and Kronos. While in the labyrinth, we meet a variety of new mythological characters. We meet Hera and Hephaestus, along with Briareus (a hundred-handed one), Kampe (a demon/she-dragon), others. I had forgotten that Thalia agreed to become one of Artemis's Hunters, and so I was a bit confused as to why she wasn't in this book at all, but remembered once I finished reading.

Riordan still manages to keep up his momentum and make this fourth book fun (I particularly enjoyed the twist where the Sphinx is no longer posing just one riddle to questers, but rather, insists on a standardized test of meaningless trivia), but this isn't his most delightful book to date. There isn't quite the same amount of playfulness and joking that the other books had, but I'm not sure this is a bad thing. The characters are getting older and things are more dangerous for everyone as we move steadily towards the fifth and final book. This installment ends with a large battle between the forces of Kronos and the demigods at Camp Half-Blood. There's bloodshed and sorrow, but the reader will finish this book with a desperate need to start the fifth. Do yourself a favor and have it ready and waiting.


The Titan's Curse

The Titan's Curse is the third installment in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, written by Rick Riordan for mythology enthusiasts wishing to tempt children into sharing their passion. If you're interested in book three, that means that it's more than likely that you've read the first two... and let's face it. You're probably like me. If you don't absolutely despise a series, you're going to keep reading, if only to figure out where everything winds up. Do not fear: Percy Jackson and the Olympians continues to be a delight and certainly doesn't feel like a chore as you continue through the books. If you (or your kids... because I guess this is supposed to be for young adults, right?) are even slightly interested in mythology, then Riordan will be right up your alley.

Even more than The Sea of Monsters, this book dives right in to the story without much summary... to the point where it actually felt rather abrupt and I wasn't sure if I had missed something, as there was no familiar re-entry that usually kicks off a series installment. Annabeth (daughter of Athena), Thalia (the daughter of Zeus that was brought back to life at the end of the second book), and Percy have set out to meet Grover the satyr at a military school, where he's found two powerful demigods and needs the help of his friends to bring them back to Camp Half-Blood. Bianca and Nico are a brother-sister pair in a military school and getting them out won't be easy, as the vice principal is a manticore in disguise. In the rescue attempt, things go wrong and Annabeth is lost with the enemy. She's not dead, as originally feared, but she disappears and you just know that whatever else is going on, it will be Percy's mission to retrieve his lost friend who he might be more than a little sweet on.

The main villain in this book (aside from the manticore) is "the General" who has a great deal invested in bringing Kronos back to power. It takes a good part of the book to reveal exactly who "the General" might be, but those who are up on their Greek mythology should be able to guess. At the manticore & the General's command are zombie skeleton warriors, so be prepared for lots of action in this book. We also meet a few new gods, including a very attractive Apollo and the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, who disconcertingly appears as a young girl. Along with Artemis, there are her Hunters -- young women (who need not be half-bloods to join) who swear off men and stay young forever, immortal until they fall in battle or break their oath. Zoe Nightshade is Artemis's lieutenant, clearly a mythological figure of some kind, but that revelation takes a while. Much to her younger brother's displeasure, Bianca accepts Artemis's offer to join her Hunters, feeling as though she needs to take a path that is just her own. When Artemis decides she needs to go solo to track a new and powerful monster (that will play a key role upcoming events), everyone else heads back to camp. Once there, the Oracle has a prophesy so compelling that it leaves its attic to deliver it: five must go on a quest to save Artemis before the Winter Solstice, but one will be lost and another will die by a father's hand. Even though Percy isn't on the initial list of questers, there's no way that our hero pass up this opportunity, particularly when he knows that Annabeth will be somewhere close by. The quest takes the heroes to San Francisco, with several stops in between, and lots of questions are still unanswered by the end of the book. Riordan relies a bit on a deus ex machina in this one, but we'll let it slide. This is the darkest book yet, though, with truly frightening villains and actual bloodshed/death.

For me, The Titan's Curse didn't seem to have the parts of Riordan's storytelling that I enjoy most -- namely, the complicated nature of the gods and the implications of being involved in an immortal world for mortal heroes. We do have some intense situations here where individuals must make some very tough choices. At one point towards the end, in a battle, Riordan depicts one hero's resolve to kill another person. Lots of issues with parents still abound (these are teenagers, after all) and so the part of the prophesy that talks about a hero dying by a father's hand is quite interesting. Unfortunately, Percy doesn't seem to really spend a lot of time thinking on this one (well, we know it probably isn't Percy, seeing as there are several books left), but it still would have been an interesting bit of confusion for Percy if he were to have considered circumstances where his own demise would be brought about by Poseidon. Otherwise, Riordan's humor is quite liberally used in this book (Apollo spouts terrible haikus, Percy's pegasus Blackjack is rather casual in his conversation, and so on), as even Riordan knows that this is quite a transition book as we prepare for bigger things. It was disappointing to not have Annabeth along for most of the ride, but allowing the heroes to experience real pain and the force of immortal struggles bearing down on their shoulders... well, it shows that Riordan isn't simply trying to create another hero series, but rather, he's fully committed to his world and the implications of Greek mythology in it.


The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson & the Olympians Book #2)

The Sea of Monsters is the second book in the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series, written by Rick Riordan for children grades 5-9. The series focuses on Perseus (Percy) Jackson, the son of Poseidon who is destined to be a hero... though what exactly that destiny entails isn't quite clear. After introducing us to a world where the Olympian gods are real and their half-blooded children band together to fight monsters and general evil, The Sea of Monsters feels surprisingly thin (though the positive side of this is that the plot moves quite quickly) as Percy and his friends focus on a new quest. Sure, there's still a lot to learn for Percy (and the reader) about the intricacies of this existence where they can influence both mortal and immortal affairs, but Riordan assumes we've read the first book and there's not too much time spent bringing people up to speed.

Percy is now thirteen and just about to make it out of the first school in a long time where he hasn't been expelled. It's the last day of class and all Percy needs to do is get through the day before he can take off for Camp Half-Blood and rejoin his other demi-god friends. The only real friend Percy has made at this school is Tyson, a homeless boy that the school has taken on as a community service project. Even though he's incredibly tall, Tyson is quite a softie and Percy has to protect him from being picked on by bullies at school. After an incident at the school, though, Percy learns that Tyson is actually a Cyclops... and his half-brother.

Back at Camp Half-Blood, things are not going well. Thalia's Tree, which sits on the border of the camp, was created when Thalia, a daughter of Zeus, forfeited her life to save her friends. Zeus turned her into a tree that protects the magical border around the camp... but now the tree has been poisoned by Luke (a son of Hermes who turned evil at the end of the first book) and the camp is in danger of being overrun by monsters. Chiron (the centaur) was blamed for letting the tree be poisoned and has been fired from his post as activities director at camp; he's been replaced by Tantalus, an immortal who tried to feed his son to the gods and wound up in eternal torment -- temptation without satisfaction. In the book, this is primarily depicted with a humorous twist as Tantalus tries to grab at cheeseburgers that zip out of his reach. Tantalus doesn't even try to mask his dislike for Percy, at a height when Percy gets blamed for an attack on campers during a chariot race.

The only thing that can save Thalia's Tree (and hence, the camp) is the Golden Fleece... which is coincidental, as Percy's been having dreams about his friend Grover (a satyr) who went searching for Pan and is now being held captive by a Cyclops that possesses the Fleece. Tantalus decides that Clarisse, a daughter of Ares, is the perfect person to lead the quest to retrieve the Fleece, which means Percy, Annabeth, and Tyson have to go renegade to help save Grover (who seems to have tricked the nearly-blind Cyclops into thinking he's a lady Cyclops and is pulling a Penelope by weaving and unraveling part of his wedding trousseau as he bides time and waits for Percy to rescue him). Hermes makes an appearance to assist Percy, hoping that Percy might be able to save his son, Luke, from the dark side. Percy learns a bit more about some powers that he's inherited from his father as we travel to the Sea of Monsters, which is the sea that every hero has had to pass through. Like Olympus, its location changes with the flame of western civilization and is now known to mortals as the Bermuda Triangle.

By far, the most interesting part of this book is not the plotline, though I'm sure that's what the kids will focus on. The relationship between Tyson and Percy and Percy's need to deal with what Tyson's presence in his life means both for himself and his relationship with his father... well, it's pretty complicated and awesome. Riordan clearly enjoys the ridiculous mess that is the Olympian family tree and doesn't feel a need to untangle things (though he tries to step things out for the kids). Tyson's existence means that if Percy thought he was super special by having a mother that Poseidon just couldn't resist and so the only affair he's had since the Big Three swore that oath to stop fathering heroes... well... now Percy has this half-brother who isn't an hero, but definitely complicates his family tree. Tyson, as a young Cyclops, is not bright and his biggest asset is his strength. Percy is ashamed of him in the beginning, despite his fondness for Tyson. And when one thinks of what Tyson had to endure as a young, homeless Cyclops... let's just say it's easy to be angry at the gods for abandoning their children to such hard roads. Sensitive children will certainly cry "unfair!" at certain things, but such is the world of mythology and such is the world that Riordan has created here. Ultimately, Percy has to come to accept that he needs Tyson just as much as Tyson needs Percy. Accepting his father, on the other hand... it seems like this is a lifelong issue for demi-gods and immortals alike.

While it's not quite as fun as the first, you can expect The Sea of Monsters to be an amusing and fast-paced sequel to The Lightning Thief. Riordan still manages to include allusions to many different myths, but not nearly as much seems to happen in this book as it did in the first. We're just on book two of five, though, so I suppose we can forgive him for pacing himself. Fans of the series will be pleased and the ending presents a nice new twist that promises to make the next few books quite interesting indeed.