If there’s one thing the Greek gods were known for, it was being petty, cruel tyrants who made the lives of lesser gods and mere mortals unpleasant. But if there was a second thing they were known for, it was having flings with mortals and producing countless demigod children. Zeus was especially bad.
So Rick Riordan asks the question: what if the Greek gods were real, and still around in modern America, and there was a special camp specifically for those “half-blood” kids? “The Lightning Thief,” first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, is an effective entrance into a colorful Greco-influenced fantasy adventure, written in a sharp, irreverent style that fits its odd hero perfectly.
Perseus Jackson doesn’t seem like an exceptional kid – he has a mother he loves, a nasty stepfather he loathes, dyslexia and ADHD, and he goes to a school for troubled kids. But when his algebra teacher morphs into a monster and tries to kill him, Percy’s life spins out of control. After he’s attacked by the Minotaur and his mother is seemingly killed, he ends up at the magical Camp Halfblood, where the modern half-mortal offspring of the Greek gods are sheltered and taught.
But then Percy is identified as the son of the sea god Poseidon, which is a bit of a problem, since the gods Zeus, Poseidon and Hades all agreed not to sire any more children. Even worse, it seems that someone has stolen Zeus’s original, unspeakably powerful lightning bolt, Percy is being blamed for the theft, and all-out divine war will ravage the western world if the lightning bolt is not recovered and returned by the summer solstice. But no pressure.
So its up to Percy to reclaim the lightning bolt from Hades, who is the number one suspect. To make matters worse, his cross-country road trip – accompanied by the satyr Grover and Athena’s daughter Annabeth – turns out to be a particularly deadly one, as he encounters gods and monsters that all have reasons to want him dead – and becomes aware of something even worse stirring back to life.
It’s obvious by reading “The Lightning Thief” that Rick Riordan has a deep and rather irreverent love for Greek mythology – he knows about Grecian myths both notorious (Medusa) and obscure (the water beds of DEATH!), and he gives wickedly amusing modern twists to most of the gods we see without losing the core of what they are.
Dionysius, for instance, is the foul-tempered camp director, who wears a tiger-striped Hawaiian shirt, but we get a brief glimpse of the madness and mayhem he can unleash among mortals. Charon has developed a love of designer suits. Ares is a biker with smoking pits for eyes. And so on, and so forth. Even the quest itself feels like a clever modern update on the Grecians quests of old, with Percy and his friends stumbling across strange
And Riordan’s writing more or less parallels his approach to Greek mythology. Percy is a clever and smart-mouthed kid who has a tendency to rub people the wrong way, so even when he’s encountering gods and monsters, the first-person narrative stays snarky and flippant, with an underlying sense of wonder at how crazy his life has become. But Riordan can flip things around into serious, downright sinister territory, such as Percy’s dreams about a mysterious force awakening to attack the gods. And there are some very heartfelt moments, mostly tied up in Percy’s quest to free his mother from Hades’ grasp.
The one downside? Well, the aftermath of the plot… kind of involves cold-blooded premeditated murder. By the good guys. Yes, the person who gets murdered is scum, but it doesn’t really justify killing him when there are, you know, other options.
The characters are more or less divided into two different camps. There are the ones Percy likes and gets along with, such as the no-nonsense Annabeth, the nervy animal-loving Grover, and the noble uber-mentor Chiron (who has an interesting method of hiding his horsey hindquarters). On the other hand, there are the ones he dislikes and doesn’t get along with, like the ugly and brutish daughters of Ares, and Dionysius, who just really despises the campers. There’s not a lot of dimension in the characters just yet, but a shocking revelation about one character does hint that Riordan has more depth in mind for them.
“The Lightning Thief” is an imperfect but cracklingly dynamic opening to Rick Riordan’s mythological universe – and despite its flaws, it makes the prospect of future books incredibly appealing. Very enjoyable.