Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Review: Percy Jackson and The Olympians

(I'm talking about the Percy Jackson books and will be spoiling them. Tread carefully.)

So a few days ago I knocked out the last two entries in the Percy Jackson and The Olympians books (series of 5) by Rick Riordan and I figure I'll take a chance to brush up on my review skills.

The Percy Jackson series is set in modern day United States (the characters travel all over the country) but in this setting the Greek gods have not completely faded into the realm of myth but continue to live on and are still up to the same tasks and tricks they were up to during height of the Ancient Greece. And speaking of tasks (and tricks) it would seem that there is one trick that really gets this series going.

You see just as in the distant past gods and goddesses of the Greek Pantheon had children by mortals. Such children are known as demigods or half-bloods. And like their divine parents these children possess powers that are far beyond mere mortals. Well I'm sure you can imagine that children with such powers must be properly cared for or bad things will happen. And that is the purpose of Camp Half Blood.

Similar to the Xavier School for the Gifted, Camp Half Blood is a summer camp that exists to show demigods how to use their abilities. Well that's not all truth be told. Just as the gods and goddesses still roam the earth today so do many of the monsters, terrors, and threats that we regard as myth and legend. And such things can be very perilous for children who are not equipped to fight them.

Enter Percy Jackson. A young boy who is about to find out that he is not just some random delinquent. No he is a son of the mighty sea god Posiedon, and danger is approaching. With the help of a young satyr by the name Grover Percy makes his way to Camp Half Blood where he learns of The Great Prophecy, and unravels his role in a battle that will determine the fate of the world.

All in all I liked the books. Similar to other fictional characters who are destined for greatness (coughcoughcoughHarryPottercoughcoughcough) Percy has best friends (Grover and Annabeth, daughter of Athena), bullies (Clarisse, daughter of Ares), and outright enemies (Luke, son of Hermes). Also like our magical friend Percy must fight under conditions that even the adults in his life may consider insurmountable. But I must say that I think these books offer a better mixing teen life with the main content of the story (personally I think Rowling doesn't mix in enough teen life and Meyer uses too much).

Riordan also does a good job of injecting classic tales into the modern world. The Labyrinth of the Minotaur? Its an underground maze that stretches across the entire US. Mount Olympus? The home of the gods and goddesses will move throughout the ages to the "center of civilization", therefore it hovers over New York City, on the 600th floor of The Empire State Building. The island where Odysseus and his men wasted away several years drinking and partying without noticing the passage of time? Its portrayed as a casino in Las Vegas where those trapped inside are free to eat, drink, and play for eternity and will never experience the passing of time (our heroes meet a pair of 12 year old twins, who have been in there since the early 1940s). And making Ares, god of war, a leather clad biker? Brilliant.

And don't think that only the sunny side of a hero is shown. There are quite a few occasions where heroes are portrayed as selfish and callous towards others. Remember the story about the Labor of Hercules where he had one day to clean out a set of stables that had not been cleaned in 30 years? Well in book 4 Percy takes on the task as part of deal for aid and marches down to a nearby river to clean them in the same manner Hercules did (in fact they haven't been cleaned since Hercules did it, which would have been centuries ago). However he is stopped dead in his tracks by the spirit of the river and she was NOT happy. She was mad and promptly told him off how Hercules talked her into using her river last time and how the massive amount of manure poisoned the river and made her sick for decades (but worry not she did give him a clue to another way to complete the task). Showing that gods, and their children are not perfect creatures.

One other thing that I really liked about the series is how the story is told. The story is told like Percy is narrating a flashback. Also I love the sense of humor and casual nature of Jackson's attitude. He could be staring down the barrel of a beatdown from an angry daughter of Ares or about to drop a few hundred feet or about to mauled by a mythical creature, he still has the time for witty commentary. And I love the chapter naming.

One last thing. If you are touched by the subject of rage, revenge, and the pain associated with them then this book can actually get pretty powerful at times (especially the last 2 books).

Unfortunately the series is not perfect.

First off I understand that being based off of Greek myth the vast majority of the characters are going to be white but from what I can tell there were damn near no people of color throughout the entire series? (It is worth noting that while Grover's character art would make you think he would be played by a guy with red hair his role was actually played by Brandon Jackson, a black guy in the 2010 adaptation of the first book, The Lightning Thief.)

There's a matter of its use of dyslexia. The learning disability is a manifestation of a demigod's brain being hard wired toward Ancient Greek, not English. Meaning that when they read English in the back of their minds they are trying to read it as Ancient Greek and modern medicine interprets this as dyslexia. Not sure how I feel about an actual learning disability used like that in literature (mind you I am not dyslexic so I can't really speak on this with any definitiveness).

When it comes to having to prove oneself in regards to sexism I think it falls short a bit. Early on in the series Ares, despite his daughter Clarisse's great accomplishments such as being leader of the Ares children who attend Camp Half Blood, shows his contempt for her being a girl. In fact at one point when Clarisse fails a task Ares literally says something to the effect of, "I bet one of my sons could have done it.". Now that's not the problem I have with this because such sexism is indeed real (but rest assured Clarisse gets busy in the final battle by killing a creature that was closing to killing all the heroes, including Percy). My problem is that there was really no reference to how boys are regularly expected to prove their manhood. With Greek myth being the source material you would think that this would come up a lot and be more direct but its not. And remember what I said about how heroes are not always portrayed in the best light? Yeah that's the exclusive province of men (feeding the myth of the moral superiority of the female).

There was pretty much a GLBT shut out on this one too.

In the end I liked the series. It does suffer from many of the failings that are commonly seen in today's literature but I think it does a good job of blending past myth with the present world and readers (regardless of age) could possibly learn some good lessons from reading this series. I won't call them a must read but rather a very good read. I give it 3.5 Riptides out of 5.

Alright I'm off to go read the Secret Circle Trilogy. Take it easy!

5 comments:

Paul said...

In the second series, the cast is much more racially diverse. There's been two books so far and each has a "power trio" as the main Questers. of the six characters theres a black girl, a latino boy, a native american girl and a canadian of chinese(?) descent.

Although main hero of the first nook (Jason) is still white, and Percy is in the second "power trio" (and is sortaa "the hero" by default) the black girl and the chinese-canadian kid are the ones whose stories are being told.

Eagle33 said...

Danny...

I don't feel good...

Daisy at the No Seriously, What About The Menz has been laying into me way beyond reasonable levels.

After her treatment of me, I feel triggered.

I know, it's my fault. I shouldn't have brought up what she did to me at Feminist Critics. Nor tangled with her in the first place.

But calling me a Stalker, an MRA, the "Making Sucking Noises" remark, and Ozymandis not doing anything about it. It's too much.

Help me...Please.

Danny said...

Good to know Paul. I'm reading the Secret Circle series right now and after that I plan on going through Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon series (its the series "Mists of Avalon" is from). By that point more than likely the next series will be close to finishing. I didn't start Percy Jackson until the fourth book was out in paperback, knowing that by the time I got through the first four the fifth would be out on paper, thus saving me the trouble of waiting for the last book.

Danny said...

Let's just calm down Eagle. Tempers are running high over there right now and the fire is coming from all sides. In fact my own fires were stoked by some of those comments (especially AB's insistence that the opinions of MRAs align with most of society and that the only reason they are making noise is because not enough people ID as MRAs). I asked one question of her and depending on her answer that may be all I say.

If anything you might want to just stay away from those threads, at least for the time being.

Just leave it be Eagle.

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