Rick Riordan. Miramax/Hyperion Books for Children, New York. 2005. ISBN 0-7868-5629-7 $7.99
For readers looking for a nice imaginative escape, for an easy to read but well thought-out adventure, the first book of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is a tasty morsel. Though the books are obviously written for children - not even teens but really for children - something in them speaks to the mature or intellectual reader in barely perceptible ways.
But first, a summary: its always nice to know if a book someone says you’ll like actually delves into a topic you would enjoy.
Imagine if the Greek gods of Mt. Olympus existed today, unnoticed but equally as real. They may have been forgotten over the course of 2000 years, but they haven’t changed. Petty quarrels and love affairs with mortals still occupy a fair chunk of their time. And monsters still sniff out and seek to destroy their half-mortal offspring. In essence, Riordan’s books are mythology made modern, right down to the main character: a demigod son of Poseidon named Perseus (Percy) Jackson.
You might be wondering what a demigod is. And you aren’t the only one. Riordan’s creative writing pulls from Greek mythology in a way that will leave just about everyone but a Classicist scratching their heads. However, instead of feeling shame for having slept through Greek Mythology (and Greek language class) during your school days, look at it as a challenge. Riordan doesn’t belittle his readers for their lack of knowledge, he inspires everyone (including your child) to learn more about the culture that contributed so much to modern Western Civilization. This word-nerd in particular longed to dig a college Greek text book out of storage and start learning all over again. Insulting someone by telling them to “go to the crows” (in Greek) is such a sophisticated way of getting under their skin!
But, back to Percy Jackson. (No, he doesn’t go by Perseus on the streets of New York.) Percy is dyslexic, has ADHD, and is prone to accidents. He has been kicked out of every school he’s ever been too. When he is attacked by a Fury (something he just learned about in Latin) during a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his world is permanently altered.
Percy’s quest begins as he, his mother, and his friend Grover are running away from the Minotaur on the way to a summer camp where he will be safe. Accidentally, though happily, he kills the Minotaur, but not before his mother disappears into the netherworld.
Grover, it turns out, is a satyr who has been assigned to protect Percy, although he’s not always successful in his role. Nevertheless, Percy wakes up three days after killing the Minotaur at Camp Half-Blood, a safe-haven for the mortal children of the gods. There he learns, not only of his parentage but that demigods struggle with dyslexia and ADHD because their brains are hardwired for ancient Greek and their bodies are equipped with amazing reflexes which predispose them for battle. And as soon as he begins to belong at the camp, Percy must leave on a quest. Zeus has accused him of stealing the master lightning bolt in an effort to start a war between the gods and Percy must travel to the underworld to retrieve the bolt, prove his innocence, and rescue his mother on the side.
The one word that describes the intricate mix of action and poetic conceit in the book is “clever.” Riordan plays with words, mingles the ancient with the modern, and parodies everything he sees. The plot is not only true to mythology, it is true to real life with places like a Hollywood recording company being the entrance to the underworld, a garden statue store being Medusa’s modern means of survival, and the lair of the lotus eaters being hidden in a Las Vegas Casino.
Without being impossibly complex or blatantly stereotypical, Riordan’s characters are also very realistic. Grover, for example, while sitting on a dock and watching nymphs practice their underwater basket weaving, wishes he could do something productive. However, it is his efforts, and his failures that make him so endearing. Grover captures, in an instant, the modern human desire to be productive, to have something to show for themselves and their lives.
Percy’s friend Annabeth also captures the essence of the incomplete human. A daughter of Athena who has spent most of her life at the camp, she longs for friendship, for a challenge, and for a place to belong. Through the fact that she is related to the goddess of wisdom and always has a plan or solution, she shows that knowledge, resourcefulness, and wisdom do not make a person complete.
Through the extensive first person narration, the reader gets to know Percy best through the book. And in getting to know Percy, they get to know a real 12-year-old boy who had never met his father. Though Percy loves his mother, appreciates her sacrifice, and actively desires the good for her (the definition of love as a Christian virtue), his life is characterized by an emptiness and a longing which isn’t resolved simply by discovering his heritage. As the son of one of the “Big Three” gods (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) Percy is much more powerful than the other demigods. But that doesn’t solve his existential angst either.
Through Percy, Riordan paints a very realistic picture of the human need for paternal love, social affirmation, and community. But he also points out that none of the aforementioned things bring complete fulfillment. Perhaps without knowing it, Riordan’s recreation of Greek mythology has validated St. Augustine’s quote “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” and his fictional milieu demonstrates perfectly the universal human questions to which Jesus Christ is the answer, as St. Thomas Aquinas or Pope John Paul II might say.
Riordan’s fictional children’s book doesn’t require contemplation of life’s essential questions or demand a pondering of the Christian proposal, but the material that is there should one desire to delve deeper. For those who don’t, the book is still enjoyable, humorous, and captivating. Just don’t read it right before you go see the movie. The book is better!
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.