Rick Riordan has a good thing going. He’s a talented, capable writer, and he’s set up a perfect little series in Percy Jackson and the Olympians. All he has to do is set up a bunch of characters that young readers can identify with, and perfect the voice of the narrator (always a challenge). Once done, he need only dip into the rich and wonderful mythology of ancient Greece to bring up perils to afflict our heroes. It’s a winning formula that combines Riordan’s strengths with a wealth of material.
I reviewed the first book (The Lightning Thief) a couple of months ago and have just finished book two, entitled The Sea of Monsters. The sequel builds on the strengths of the original, developing the main characters while encountering no shortage of mythological threats to provide the action.
When we last left our heroes, Perseus (“Percy”) Jackson spent a summer learning that his life was far more complicated than he could have imagined. The awkward, dyslexic sixth grader discovered that he was, in fact, a demigod — a son of the Greek God Poseidon, no less. Not only were the Greek Gods and other mythological real and still alive, they’d upped sticks and followed the development of Western civilization. Mount Olympus could now be accessed from the secret 600th floor of the Empire State Building, and Hades was in Los Angeles. Percy then discovered that there were many people like him, who were constantly targets for various mythological monsters who could sniff out demi-divinity a mile away. His human mother had been trying to protect him for years, but when that didn’t work, he was bundled off to Camp Half Blood, a protected summer camp on Long Island where he made friends, and learned that his reputation had preceded him.
Discovering that he’d been accused of stealing Zeus’s prototype lightning bolt, he and two of his friends (the know-it-all daughter of Athena, Annabeth Chase and Grover, a young satyr) went on a road trip (a quest) to find the powerful mythological device, entering various threats and even treachery. In the end, it was discovered that the remnants of the old titan Kronos was masterminding things from his prison in Tartarus, and that a new war between the Gods and the Titans was building.
In The Sea of Monsters, Percy has enjoyed an unusually quiet school year following his first summer at Camp Half Blood. However, this tranquillity is shattered when monsters invade his prep school and challenge the students to a deadly dodgeball match. Percy does his best to save the school, but despite being helped by the surprisingly strong Tyson — a homeless kid that the school had taken on as an act of charity — Percy’s luck only turns when Annabeth comes to the rescue, dispatching the last monsters, grabbing Percy and Tyson, and high-tailing it out of there.
Turns out, the reason Percy had been having an unusually quiet year was because Camp Half Blood was constantly under attack. The magical borders that kept the monsters at bay were deteriorating due to sabotage. For the demigod students, the camp is under siege both without and within. The monsters are getting increasingly bold, and the Camp’s new management is complacent to the point of hostility.
But there’s hope — and further danger. Percy is receiving messages in his sleep from Grover, who at the end of The Lightning Thief, had gone on a quest of his own to search out the missing god Pan. Instead, he’s found himself a prisoner of the Cyclops, on an island that holds the Golden Fleece. Knowing that Grover is in mortal danger, and that the fleece is the best opportunity to restore the decaying borders of Camp Half Blood (and at the encouragement of the god Hermes), Percy and Annabeth take matters into their own hands. With the help of Tyson — who turns out to be a baby cyclops — they hitch a ride on a cruise ship and make their way to the Sea of Monsters, now located east of Florida and southwest of Bermuda.
And if you haven’t guessed what the Sea of Monsters is in today’s world, you’re as slow as Percy was when Annabeth slapped him upside the head.
The Sea of Monsters has all of the fun elements of The Lightning Thief and more. Once again, Erin was forced to slap her forehead and say, “do none of these people ever read the Odyssey?! Shouldn’t it be like a survival guide to these kids?!”, but these elements are well written and full of action and humour. More than that, though, Riordan takes the time to flesh out his characters, particularly Annabeth, who is developing into one of the most interesting kids I’ve seen in young adult literature. Despite the strong friendship (and hint of something more) between herself and Percy, she has a fatal flaw — she wants to be the one who fixes the world, and is somewhat jealous that the prophesies seem to indicate that she’ll play second-fiddle to the heroes. The question of where this will lead is certainly fuelling speculations about the fifth and final book in the series, The Last Olympian (due to be released this coming May).
Throughout The Sea of Monsters, Riordan takes the black and white patterns he established in The Lightning Thief and fills things in with shades of grey. Percy is confronted with several uncomfortable questions about the gods in general and his father in particular and he is tempted on more than one occasion by the traitor Luke’s insistence that the gods are cruel and capricious and deserve to be wiped out (along with the rest of Western civilization). Even Clarisse, a daughter of Ares, is transformed from the two-dimensional bully of the first book, into someone a lot more conflicted, and who incidentally shares Percy, Luke and Annabeth’s desire for the love, respect and acknowledgement of their divine parents. The result is a deeper novel that retains all the elements that made the first novel fun, and one that continues to set up the elements for the great battle to come.
It’s no surprise to me that author Rick Riordan finds himself a very busy man these days. Stephanie Meyer and Twilight may be getting most of the hype in the book industry’s desperate search for J.K. Rowling’s heir, but Riordan is building a stronger, younger and more diverse fan base of his own for his Percy Jackson series. A movie — produced by Chris Columbus — is in the offing.
And this is no accident, in my opinion. As jealous as I may have been of Ms. Rowling’s success, she at least earned it with strong characterization and a narrative that was deeper than most people gave it credit for. Riordan too has built a set of strong and complicated characters into what started out as a very black-and-white story, and there’s no guarantee that the narrative is going to stay simple, the morality safe. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series, The Titan’s Curse, and I’m certainly looking forward to The Last Olympian when it comes out this May.