Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Lightning Thief

I have heard from a lot of people who enjoyed Rick Riordan's book The Lightning Thief, so I was interested when our book group picked it for this month's read.  Getting through the wait list was quite the ordeal, but that's usually a good sign, right?  I knew very little about the story going into it, except that it was "like Harry Potter," and involved kids who were the half-mortal offspring of Greek mythical gods.  I'm always dubious when something is marketed as being "like" another huge success, but after reading it I can see both why it would be called that, and also how that's not really a fair description.

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?


  1. Oooh, I am so glad you blogged about this. I read it some time ago and loved it, but never got around to blogging about it. Here's my question: should I let my oldest read the series?

  2. I'm right in the middle of the 5th and final book and I've thoroughly enjoyed them. I love how fast-paced it is. That was always my one gripe about Harry Potter - the action took too long. These move quick. You pretty much listed all the things I loved about the series.

    Jenny - how old is your oldest? I would say it's very kid friendly. It's very tame. When monsters are killed they just dissolve into dust so it's not graphic in anyway. There's no smut, no bad language, there's some romance but it's more in the general teenage confusion vein. And the scary parts aren't really all that scary. And I'm a huge wimp when it comes to scary parts. I say yes.

  3. I was wondering that too -- how young is old enough? My concern would be if they get more mature as the series goes on. But there's nothing objectionable in what I've read so far. Aside from that, I think I would wait until they have had at least a little background in mythology to serve as a foundation. But they should still get that in elementary school, right?

  4. I'm so glad to hear from you trustyworthy readers about this series. I kind of roll my eyes as I walk by juvenile fiction these days, because I honestly can't tell which books belong to which series, since they all look exactly the same. I will put these on my reading list for the summer. It looks like the perfect series to read while the kids run amok in the yard.

  5. And when I say "trustyworthy", you know I mean I really really trust you. :)

  6. I know this is old but I just wanted to say that my oldest son was in 6th grade when he first read this book. He loved it and recommended it to me. We've both really enjoyed the series and he bought the series book by book whenever he had money to spend!

    These reviews are great! Thanks for taking time to do them!!