The Lightning Thief: Surprisingly complex

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsRick Riordan book review Percy Jackson and the Olympians The Lightning ThiefThe Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

I had been hearing good things about Rick Riordan’s young adult fantasy series, but it wasn’t until a half-price sale at the bookstore and the release of the movie (which I still haven’t seen) that I finally decided to catch up with the bandwagon. I knew that it followed the basic premise of the typical coming-of-age drama in a fantasy setting, in which a troubled youngster discovers that he has innate power and a lot of trouble to go with it. To harness his power, achieve his goals, and discover his place in his newly discovered world is Percy Jackson’s ongoing character arc. Though it is clearly inspired by the success of Harry Potter (right down to the format of the titles: variations of “Hero’s Name and the Intriguing Noun”), it’s never openly derivative.

Percy Jackson is a twelve-year-old boy who finds it difficult to stay out of trouble. Constantly expelled from school for bad behavior, he’s finding his current position in a private school palatable thanks to a sympathetic teacher and a good friend with a muscular impediment in his legs. But he struggles with his dyslexia and fumes over his unhappy home life (his mother is married to a beatnik), he becomes swiftly aware that there are stranger things going on around him.

His teacher Mr. Brunner and his friend Grover clearly know something about him that they’re not sharing, and after a terrifying encounter with a nasty teacher, Percy discovers the truth. As you probably already know from the blurb, Percy (and many others like him) is the child of a mortal and a god, a “half-blood” whose very existence makes him a target of malevolent powers in the world. The only safe place is Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for the children of the gods, where they can learn about their skills, heritage and powers. There he discovers the real identities of Mr. Brunner and Grover (a centaur and a satyr, respectively) — but he loses someone infinitely precious to him on the way.

As he goes through his training he learns more about this new sub-world, particularly that each half-blood is expected at some stage to undergo a quest to prove themselves, much like the demi-god heroes of myth and legend. Percy and his new friend Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, get their chance when a conspiracy is uncovered. Someone is trying to foster discord among the gods by stealing the master lightening bolt of Zeus, casting the blame on Percy for the theft. To clear his name and prevent a catastrophe, Percy sets off toward Los Angeles where the entrance to the Underworld awaits, with Annabeth and Grover in tow.

This is really only the barebones of the plot, as this first installment of Percy Jackson’s books is surprisingly complex. Basically, Percy has a lot of stuff to do and there’s no time to waste! From his home life to his camp life to his journey across America, things barely slow down in a plot that contains everything but the kitchen sink. Riordan’s most innovative feature is his “updating” of Greek mythology into a contemporary setting, and it is the readers who know their rudimentary legends that will derive the most enjoyment out of seeing familiar characters pop up in their modern forms.

Percy himself is a nice enough kid, struggling with his differences but keeping a hopeful outlook whenever things seem to be at their worst. Told in first-person narrative, it’s Percy’s own voice that guides us through the story, and he remains chatty and natural throughout. Grover makes for a great sidekick/best friend, with a back-story and personal problems of his own, and though Annabeth initially comes across as the typical feisty “I ain’t no damsel in distress” love interest, she also comes into her own as the book progresses. But at times the trio can be unforgivably stupid. Say that you’re on a dangerous mission, and know full well that deadly monsters are attacking you at every available opportunity. Would you take time out to go sightseeing in the Gateway Arc? Would you enter a suspicious casino where the waiters ply money into your hands and cater to your every need? Would you follow a creepy waterbed salesman into his shop? Every time the kids fall for this sort of thing, my respect for them dropped as swiftly as their IQ points.

If anything, the plot is perhaps a little too busy, with the protagonists racing at breakneck speed from one dangerous situation to the next, several plot coupons floating in and out of the story, and the themes of parental abandonment, responsibility, teenage delinquency, and the power of friendship piling up. And was anyone else a little disappointed that after all the fuss over Zeus’s lightening bolt, it never actually got used? (Judging from the trailer, the film rectifies this problem).

Still, this was an immensely satisfying read, and a sympathetic hero, a race against time, a fusing of past and present, the mystery of a missing parent, action and adventure, and plenty of material leftover for the sequels, means that The Sea of Monsters is definitely on my reading list.


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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