Los Angeles is the Gate to the Underworld?: The Lightning Thief

lightning-thiefI finished the first volume in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians, and I remembered why I love reading young adult/ children’s literature. These books are fast reads and often quite pleasurable on an instinctual or gut level. This was certainly the case with The Lightning Thief. Having had a night to sleep on the book, I finding myself with mixed feelings about it. This book was published in 2005, 8 years after the publication of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I could not shake the feeling that I was reading a book aimed at the very same audience, albeit a book that plays with Greek mythology rather than a more generic “magic.” There is a young troubled boy as the protagonist, a school in the form of a summer camp for “magical” kids, scary monsters of all shapes, and, even, for a period a love triangle between Percy (the protagonist), Annabeth (his intelligent if socially awkward friend), and Luke (and older camper). It seems like at some point, an editor said you could not have these three going on an adventure, so when Percy actually leaves camp to find Zeus’ master bolt of lightning, Grover, a satyr, joins him and Annabeth.

What the book does well is play with Greek mythology. There are Greek and Latin jokes in here along with a serious knowledge of that period’s mythology (one that to my mind goes beyond simply reading Wikipedia entries). When Percy eventually does meet his father, Poseidon, there is a palpable sense that the gods do not “love” their half-human children, a sense that adds some much-needed emotional depth to the book. This was one of the more interesting points in the book although it came within the last 100 pages.

What the book does not do well is try to be hip. It seems like an editor somewhere along the line told Riordan that he had to speak at a kid’s level, so he tries to jive in all the worst ways. Some examples include: describing moving words on the pages “doing one-eighties as if they were skateboards” (18) or a description of the Minotaur as possessing “bulging biceps and triceps and a bunch of other ‘ceps, all stuffed like baseballs under vein-webbed skin” (50). I used to skateboard and the board just doesn’t happen to casually do one-eighties, so that’s a failed simile in my mind. His description of the Minotaur aims at the comic, but ends up in the ludicrous. There were, thankfully, only a few moments like these, but with a publisher like Hyperion, Disney Corporation’s publishing arm, you have to think there is a room full of editors/execs throwing around ideas about how to get “hip.”

This problem points to a tension in the book between the serious and the comic. At moments, Riordan creates an engaging fantastical with serious quests, heroes, and action, but at other times it is undercut by his desire to add in the laughs with Greek mythology jokes or, worse, deadpan/slapstick humor. Maybe this isn’t a problem with the book so much as my desire to keep fantasy serious. I guess I like a straight fantastical narrative, not one undercut with humor. Harry Potter didn’t try to be funny, and it worked. I’m not sure The Lightning Thief works.

Would I recommend this book? Tough call. I give it a resounding maybe. Yes, if you want a quick read that is occasionally engaging. No, if you want something that is original and does not read like a mish-mash of other popular young adult series.

 

Riordan, Rick. Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. New York: Hyperion, 2005. Print.

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