The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I live in a reading house, a house walled up with books. It’s a gift and a blessing, especially on moments in the summer when I look up and everyone in the house is immersed in one, the boys sprawled out on the couches with hardcovers propped on their chests and legs dangling over the edge of the cushions.
My wife loves YA literature, so she was pleased with the twins started reading Rick Riordan’s series, which has been a favorite of hers for a while. I tend to pass up YA literature, but when my oldest finished The Lightning Thief, brought it downstairs, and somberly handed it to me and said, “Dad, you need to read this,” I obligingly put it in my pile.
I’ve read Harry Potter, and I assumed this would just be something along the same lines. And it was, to a degree. (For the record, by this point every literate member of my family was reading a different Riordan book. We had to visit the library for additional copies.) In lots of ways, I was struck by the similarities to Rowling’s world. There’s a kid with rough luck who is longing to know the truth about his parents (in Percy’s case his dad), a misfit who finally finds a place where he belongs and realizes he’s Actually Quite Important. There are similarities with the supporting cast as well: a trio of three best friends (the main character along with an intelligent girl and a loyal guy sidekick). A quest, a wise mentor, etc. etc.
Another big parallel is the setting. Rowling and Riordan both have tapped into places every kid would be familiar with. The settings lend themselves to episodic adventure. The center of the Harry Potter universe is of course a school that the characters return to each fall. Riordan reverses this: instead of the action taking place during the school year, it’s a summer camp where demigods spend their vacations training to fight monsters. In both cases Riordan and Rowling take something familiar, something kids can relate to, and use it as a springboard for the stories they’re going to tell.
What sets Riordan’s book apart from Rowling’s and makes me think I like it a bit more is that it draws on deeper wells than the Potter universe: in particular, Greek mythology. That’s obvious upon picking up the book, but it’s actually done with some cleverness for the level of a kid-reader. For one thing, Riordan doesn’t spell everything out explicitly. The reader who knows Greek mythology has a head start (and will almost instantly realize who Percy’s father actually is), but the one who doesn’t will learn a lot along the way and have a heavy motivation to learn more if they want to catch all the details of the story. (Seriously, any kids’ book in which the hero’s mentor is his Latin instructor and tells the hero to “Read the Iliad” is on the right track in my mind.) In some cases, yes, the modernizations of mythical motifs get a bit trite and repetitive, especially as the trio of main characters travel westward on their quest, stumbling from one set-piece to the next. But the underlying puzzle is compelling enough to push the narrative along.
With a book like this, it’s difficult to know whether you can complain about the descriptions, which– especially for the monsters– seem pretty shallow and vague. It’s hard to tell whether this is Riordan’s style or a mechanism for making a believable twelve-year-old boy narrator, someone who doesn’t slow down to give much descriptive detail.
A surprising strength of the book is the reverence with which the gods are treated. Riordan does a nuanced job of balancing their childishness and pettiness with respect for their raw power. It makes them more believable. You can imagine this is how they were actually treated in ancient Greece: forces to be respected but not necessarily emulated; aspects of nature that couldn’t really be trusted. Especially poignant is Percy’s ultimate encounter with his father. The angst of an abandoned kid looking for approval from a dad who is powerful but also aloof and satisfyingly alien. It somehow rings true, and it reminds me a little of Lewis’s treatment of Aslan (though with much less warmth and wisdom): he’s not a tame lion, after all.
The gods, Riordan manages to communicate, were not tame. Of course here they’re simplified (though perhaps they were then as well– larger than life caricatures of elemental forces) and in some cases even boring (especially the monsters), but Riordan brings them to life for a modern generation while at the same time being surprisingly (to me) true to their roots and their nature.