(Puffin e-books 2005-2009)
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief / Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters / Percy Jackson and the Titan’s Curse / Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth / Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian
I’d heard about these books before I read Little Red Reviewer’s review of the first Percy Jackson book, but never felt inclined to try them before. I got the first book to try it, and found myself enjoying it so much that I bought the remaining four! Riordan takes the world of Greek myths into the modern world – the USA, in particular – and brings them up to date in exciting fashion. There’ll be a few spoilers for the earlier books in this review, though I’ll try not to make them too annoying.
In the first book, Percy Jackson is twelve years old, and coming to the end of a year at yet another school: trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes. He has made a friend at this school, a boy called Grover, though almost all the other children either dislike him or go out of their way to bully him. Percy isn’t someone who takes this sort of thing lying down, though he’s aware that one teacher, in particular, is just looking for an excuse to punish him.
It’s after the crabby maths teacher reveals herself to be a horrible monster and Percy is expelled after a school trip goes horribly wrong, that his mother reluctantly tells him about a summer camp for half-bloods, and Percy find out that his father – who has been missing from his whole life – is a god. At Camp Half-Blood, where all the children have a Greek god or goddess as a parent (though not the greatest of the pantheon, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus, after they made a pact between them after the Second World War not to have any more children with mortal women, since these half-bloods caused to much trouble), Percy discovers that Grover is a satyr and his erstwhile Latin teacher is actually the centaur Chiron. The alert reader will discover who Percy’s father is long before Percy does, though the discovery is not a happy one.
There is trouble between the gods – someone has stolen Zeus’ lightning bolt – a formidable weapon – and everyone assumes that either Poseidon or Hades was behind the theft. Percy is given a quest to recover it, and with Grover and Annabeth (a daughter of Athena, who has been at the camp for a long time) try to find it and who was behind the theft. Along the way they meet Medusa, Ares and Aphrodite, a variety of monsters and other unpleasant persons, and finally find out who was behind the theft. However, it’s a little more complicated than a simple theft, and attempt to make war, and Riordan develops the plot and the scheming through the next four books in an exciting and thoughtful way.
Each book is complete in itself, and generally starts with Percy being expelled from the latest school, followed by a quest to find something or stop something happening, and many Greek myths and characters therefrom are encountered. Riordan transforms these traditional stories very well into adventures in the present day, full of adventure and excitement. There are two main plot strands running through the series, one of which is the ongoing efforts to defeat the plotted rise of the Titan Kronos, and the second is the satyrs’ search for their god, Pan, and the concern they all have for the natural world.
Percy and his friends grow up – he’s sixteen at the end of the fifth book – and change, though he and Annabeth, the main characters, are appealing and the reader easily identifies with them. In the fifth book, in particular, Percy and Annabeth’s relationship does change, but it feels entirely organic and not willed by the author. Likewise, Percy’s perceptions of his fellow half-bloods changes, as does ours, and as he grows up he comes to realise that people are more complicated than children see them.
I particularly liked that Percy is not the only person to do the heroic deeds and fight all the battles – Riordan is careful to give several people starring roles and help defeat the bad guys, in their different ways. Everyone has a chance to change their ways and redeem themselves, whether that’s Clarisse, a daughter of Ares who dislikes Percy and is prone to hold grudges, or the satyrs’ Council of Elders who initially think Grover is lying when he tells of the death of Pan.
All sorts of characters and events from Greek myth appear, such as Geryon and Antaeus, Medusa and the Hesperides, Calypso and Circe (in a funny twist on the original story, Percy is turned into a guinea pig) – and Percy and his friends outwit them in ways similar to those of the myths: Procrustes turns up as a seller of beds, and Proteus as the smelliest beach bum in California. Hera appears as a guardian of the family – though Hephaestus warns the children that she’s a protector of what she sees as the perfect kind of family – Apollo as a vain writer of haikus, Demeter always urging everyone to eat more cereals, and Artemis as a twelve-year old girl. There are other stories in the Greek myths that Riordan only alludes to in his books but which are amusing to the reader who is familiar with the originals.
Some of the details are implausible – twelve year old Percy winning a fight against Ares, for example – but generally speaking these are funny and exciting books, filled with the importance of family, friendship, trust and doing what’s right, rather than what’s best for you. The books appeal to both boys and girls, with problem solving and battles; Riordan really gets Percy’s voice, almost conversational, with dialogue and thoughts; Percy is observant, though not highly skilled at inferring emotions or reactions, though this lets the reader infer for herself what the other characters are thinking or feeling.
Riordan also doesn’t shy away from death, treachery, loss and pain, whether these are directly affecting Percy and his friends, or minor characters. The death of Bianca, for example, in Titan’s Curse, is affecting, but it also seriously changes her brother Dino, both in his attitude to his powers (making him vulnerable to Minos’ ghost in Battle of the Labyrinth) and his mistrust of Percy.
As re-tellings of ancient myths as well as exciting adventure stories for children, these books are very well done, and highly recommended.