Review: The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2)

Percy Jackson may have averted a war between the most powerful of the Olympian gods, saving the Western world in the process. But something more dangerous is on the horizon, something old and dark and terrible.

And that power starts pushing its way to Camp Half-Blood in the second book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Sea of Monsters. Author Rick Riordan’s writing style is still snarky and fast-paced, and it feels feels a little more polished than in The Lightning Thief – especially since he weaves together a good portion of The Odyssey into his own adventure, but with the modern twist he’s so talented at creating.

For several months, Percy has been attending a prep school, where his only friend is a large, strong but childlike homeless boy named Tyson. But after an attack by monsters, Percy and Tyson are forced to flee with Annabeth back to Camp Half-blood. They soon learn that Thalia’s magic tree has been poisoned, meaning that the barrier protecting the camp is slowly disintegrating. To make matters worse, Chiron has been replaced by Tantalus, who hates the kids and takes a particular dislike to Percy, and Tyson is revealed to be a young Cyclops and also Percy’s half-brother.

But then a dream from Grover tips Percy and Annabeth off to the one thing that can save the camp – the Golden Fleece. Unfortunately, Grover is currently located in the Sea of Monsters – the Bermuda Triangle – and is in danger of being molested by a Cyclops who wants to marry and/or eat him. Unfortunately, Tantalus sends the brutish Clarisse to retrieve the Fleece, and forbids any other campers from going on a quest to find it, on pain of being eaten by harpies.

Shocking spoiler alert: Percy, Annabeth and Tyson decide to go on a quest to save Grover from death (or worse). But they soon discover that satyr-eating Cyclopes aren’t the only threat that lurks in the Sea of Monsters – ancient horrors are lurking, waiting to consume (or transform) the young heroes. Worst of all, an old enemy is also lurking in the Sea – and he wants the Golden Fleece as well.

There’s a hefty chunk of The Odyssey in the DNA of The Sea of Monsters – we have a visit to Circe (whose magical routine has changed a little… but not much), Scylla and Charybdis, and a visit to a Cyclops. However, the core of the story is Riordan’s own, and he creates a lot of stuff for this story that is very much in his own style (such as a Confederate ironclad crewed by zombies), and which works pretty seamlessly with any Homeric homages.

Riordan’s writing is a little more polished in this book, integrating the weirdly mythological with the modern world a little more smoothly (the Gray Sisters and their taxi). And he knows his mythology, as evidenced by the inclusion of Tantalus and his seething hatred of all kids, who is mostly used as an obstacle… and a source of laughs, since his mere presence repels all food and drink.

He also builds up a real sense of darkness and impending disaster, starting with the truly nasty monsters that roam through the Bermuda Triangle area… and building up to to the return of a familiar character, who is planning to use the Fleece for extremely evil reasons. But don’t worry, there’s still a wild, lighthearted side to these monstrous encounters. Let’s just say that centaurs know how to party. And pirates need vitamins.

Riordan also introduces or expands a few characters in the cast beyond just Percy and Annabeth. The most significant addition is Tyson, a kind and gentle boy who is mocked and ostracized by most other kids, especially since he often seems like he has a mental disability. This also leads to some good development for Percy, who struggles with feelings of both love and shame for his awkward, monstrous, childlike sibling – something that many siblings of disabled children sometimes feel. Clarisse also receives some development, since we see her uncertainty and the reason she’s so gung-ho to always succeed.

Rick Riordan was pretty entertaining in The Lightning Thief, but he seems to have hit his stride in The Sea of Monsters. The characters are deeper, the fantastical exploits more intricate, and the threat of the Big Bad substantially more present. And the story ain’t over yet.

Review: The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)

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.

Random thoughts

I hate masks. Every time I try to speak through one, I get a mouthful of wet cloth. Breathing through them is horrible.

Jay Exci has an excellent Youtube channel.

I haven’t been to the library in weeks.

Books I want to check out: the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series, Seven Deadly Shadows, Call Down the Hawk, the fourth Percy Jackson book, some V.E./Victoria Schwab, the expanded edition of Neverwhere, etc.

Two Dresden Files books in one year? It’s Christmas come early!

And since Covid-19 has shut down the country, I cut my own hair.