Percy Jackson believes that the Fates are conspiring against him. He’s not far wrong.
The twelve-year-old boy is suffering his time at Yancy Academy in upstate New York, about to be kicked out of his sixth school in six years. His teachers find him unteachable. He’s dyslexic, moody, never fits in with the other students… and things just keep going wrong for him. Only his classics teacher, Mr Brunner, and his friend Grover Underwood, support him from a student and teaching body that teem with bullies and monsters.
It’s when one of those teachers reveals herself to be a monster in a literal sense that the world starts to make a perverse sense for poor Percy. He was born in mysterious circumstances, after his mother had an affair with a powerful rich man who vanished at sea. At his nursery, Percy strangled a snake that had slithered into his crib. Percy’s real name is Perseus.
But no sooner are the revelations made known that Percy and his mother have to run for their lives from a Minotaur. The monsters know where Percy lives, now, and they’re coming. There’s one hope: a mysterious summer camp called Camp Half Blood, where the demigod children of various liaisons shelter for protection. Percy’s mother sacrifices herself so that Percy can make it to safety, and while the boy grieves, the revelation that the legends of ancient Greece are real and being replayed in America gives him strange comfort. His mom may be dead, but that means she’s in the Underworld, meaning that rescue remains a possibility.
If this isn’t enough, there appears to be a civil war brewing among the gods of Olympus. Someone has stolen Zeus’s master lightning bolt, and Percy — revealed to be a demigod son of Poseidon — is the prime suspect. To clear his name, and stop a war between Zeus and Poseidon, Percy must travel to the Underworld to confront Hades, who some believe to be the real thief. The good news is, Percy is not alone on his quest: his best friend Grover (a satyr) will accompany, along with a know-it-all demigod daughter of Athena named Annabeth. The bad news is, they’re three twelve-year-old (or equivalent) kids about to embark on a trip across America, with monsters at their heels. And not one of them knows how to drive.
So begins the story behind Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, the first novel in the Texas author’s highly successful Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Over the course of five books (the fifth, The Last Olympian, to be released this coming May) we will see Percy and his friends grow and develop in a framework that combines the action of Hercules with the sensibilities of modern teenage America (Xena comparisons are not to be found… for now). The stories have already built a considerable fan following and it’s easy to see why. The tales are packed with action, plus a little hint of romance.
The combination of ancient Greek legend and modern America isn’t an easy one, but Riordan takes full advantage of the creative tension, here. It stretches belief (ha, ha) that Procrustes would sell waterbeds in Los Angeles, for instance, or that any god worth his or her salt would wear a Hawaiian shirt. But while the effect generates some laughs, I never stopped taking the book seriously, and I believe the reason has everything to do with the characters.
Riordan’s triumph is writing compelling pre-teen heroes and heroines. Rick writes in the first person, capturing the voice of Percy and making him a likable hero for the legions of readers ten and up. Annabeth Chase is an excellent foil — sensible where Percy is impulsive — and the chemistry and banter between her and Percy throughout the book is a joy to read. Grover is a nicely melancholy figure. There are no stereotypes among the secondary characters (although the identity of the traitor is very easy to suss out). With all of the unreal things that happen in this novel clashing against the very real American settings that Percy, Annabeth and Grover have to visit, it’s the characterization that keeps the novel from tipping over into farce. Percy’s desire to find his niche, to save his mother, and earn his father’s respect, is something most readers will readily identify with.
Once Percy, Annabeth and Grover embark on their quest, The Lightning Thief takes on the sensibility of a road movie, combining elements of the Illiad and the Odyssey. Indeed, some connections are so obvious that Erin (who has read these things back to front) expressed frustration and disbelief that these kids could fall into these traps. (“Don’t these guys read the Odyssey? They should. It’ll be like a survival manual for them!”) But, truth to tell, I walked with Percy past several statues in the garden gnome emporium before I picked up the pieces and realized that they were about to come face to face with the Medusa, so for the many kids who have not read the Odyssey, I think the action will be new and fresh to them. As for Erin, she admits that she had a lot of fun seeing poor Percy, Annabeth and Grover walk straight into these threats, knowing something of what was to come. (I mean, “the Lotus Casino”? Think about that for a moment).
So, if you’re looking for good, light, fun reading with interesting characters, and don’t mind a little Greek history with your serving, then The Lightning Thief is for you. I am officially a fan of this series, and am looking forward to tackling the next four novels.