Tuesday, April 20, 2010
The Lightning Thief
Percy (short for Perseus) Jackson is a troubled teen being raised by an angelic mother and repulsive stepfather in New York City. His academic and behavioral problems mean he has bounced around from school to school, and when the story opens he is finishing out his sixth grade at a boarding school for juvenile delinquents. Bizarre experiences have happened to him over the years, but nothing quite as strange as during the opening chapter when his math teacher turns into a freakish creature and tries to destroy him while on a school field trip.
After school lets out, Percy continues to be pursued by dark forces until his mom sends him to a special summer camp that his absent and mysterious father had always wanted him to attend. Eventually he discovers that his father is none other than Poseidon, who together with Zeus and Hades constitute the Big Three. But the Big Three had made a pact following WWII not to have anymore mortal affairs (because it was their offspring who were responsible for the war), so Percy isn't even supposed to exist and is already in mortal danger just for being born. Then add to that the fact that Zeus's master thunderbolt was stolen right around the same time Percy's existence comes out and he is immediately suspected. The only way for him to clear his name and prevent a catastrophic world war is to find the lightning bolt and return it to Zeus. Thus starts a quest that takes him across the country, into the bowels of the Underworld, and to the heights of Mt. Olympus. Like any true heroic quest, he fights mythical monsters and other sinister traps, learning lessons about courage, friendship, and his own worth along the way.
The parallels to Harry Potter are pretty obvious. Adolescent boy (not quite an orphan in Percy's case, but close) who struggles to fit in discovers that he possesses special powers and belongs in a secret world that co-exists with the known world but the majority of humanity is blithely unaware of it. Some of the things that make the story so delightful were similar attractions in Harry Potter. The juxtaposition of the mythical and the contemporary were refreshingly creative, and the whole thing was infused with a light-hearted humor that made it a fun romp. Riordan's writing isn't as well-crafted as Rowling's, the plot twists were more predictable, and there wasn't the greater underlying depth that made Harry Potter so much more than just a fun story. But I've also only just read the first in the series so I can't say how those things may change over time. Beyond that, though, I hesitate to draw more parallels with Harry Potter because I think Riordan's work can and should be allowed to stand on its own. He definitely had command over the story and action and there was no sense that he was just trying to milk another Harry Potter success.
Some of the things I liked most about The Lightning Thief were, as I said before, how he meshes the mythical world with the "real" world in ways that are cleverly convincing. (For instance, demi-god children are prone to dyslexia and ADHD because their brains are hard-wired to read ancient Greek, not modern English, and their natural battle reflexes make it difficult to sit still in a formal classroom.) Another plus -- I have always enjoyed studying mythology, and it was fun to dust off some of the cobwebs in my memory to appreciate how Riordan was bringing it to life. I also enjoyed the first person narrative. It was very direct and funny, but without resorting to immature humor or adolescent stereotypes to convince us it was a 12-year-old talking. Just as an example of the strong narrative voice, some of the chapter titles are, "I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom," "A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers," and my personal favorite, "Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death." One thing Riordan did very well was keeping up a fast page-turning pace. The story is full of action that drives the narrative forward and I finished it the same day I started it. I just couldn't help it! When you're having that much fun, why stop?