Tag Archives: YA lit

The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)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.

Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I never really liked the Harry Potter books, and for years I’ve been trying to articulate to myself why. Probably part of it is the determination to be suspicious of anything for which there’s a lot of hype. They didn’t quite take with me when they first came out, even after the girl I was dating made me read the first one. It wasn’t until years later, when I saw the first part of the seventh movie with the same girl (who was by that time my wife) that I decided the story was getting gritty enough to make me curious. I read each book over the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays one year in graduate school, pausing after each volume to watch the movie adaptation. It was fun.

Now we’re doing the same thing with our twin eight-year-olds. This time, each time they both finish a book we’ve been watching the movie adaptation in the planetarium. We had a few of these “Harry Potter Parties” over the past summer and have made it up through Order of the Phoenix. After we finished the fourth movie, I figured I’d jump back in. I hadn’t read any of them in years, and Goblet of Fire had always been my wife’s favorite.

I still don’t get it. Part of me does, sure: it’s fun. Better than anything else, Rowling captures something (I’m not sure what) that makes you want to go back to Hogwarts with the three main characters each year. The magical boarding school aspect is fun. And as the novels progress, the growing threat of You-Know-Who’s return starts to become compelling. Pulling that out across several novels and following the Orwellian machinations of the Ministry of Magic to deny it eventually starts to build nicely.

But so many other books do this sort of thing so much better.

I had difficulty finishing Goblet of Fire. For one thing, I knew how it was going to end, so there wasn’t really anything driving me to finish it. (I honestly don’t understand how people read these books over and over again.) There’s a mystery, but Harry doesn’t really do anything to solve it. In fact, in this book Harry’s frustratingly passive. He spends most of the narrative complaining about how he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and the story plays out around him. This becomes quite a trend in the later books, aggravated by Harry’s growing adolescent angst. Maybe this is one of the reason the books appealed to kids who read it at a time when they were going through similar things in their lives, at least as far as feeling kind of powerless and at the mercy of circumstances.

Maybe Goblet is a good volume to analyze (though I’m really not going to spend much time doing that) because it’s a microcosm for my primary complaint about the series. As much fun as it is, and as much as Rowling has done just enough world-building to make it work, the whole series is stuff happening to Harry. Possibly that starts to change in the later books (which I don’t recall as sharply as this one I’ve just reread), but as far as book four Harry continues to be a fairly self-centered character who bumbles from one near-disaster to the next, shepherded through by people who are either trying to kill him or trying to protect him.

I guess the character I resonate with the most is Snape, because I kind of share his evaluation of Harry. And, though this isn’t directly relevant to Goblet, Snape’s ultimate fate is still my biggest (and in my opinion most credible) complaint against the series as a whole. A single outstanding question runs through the entire series, which is basically: which side is Snape on? And though we get an answer (not in Goblet), we never really get a resolution. Or rather, we get a resolution so pathetic as to not be worth the multi-book build up.

But I’m trying to give a review of Goblet. As far as the series goes, it illustrates that things are getting serious in the most blatant way possible: by killing a character. But as far as a stand-alone book, a tidy little puzzle gets wrapped up through last-minute revelations and Harry’s participation in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Sure, the movie leaves out a lot of “plot details,” but it captures the essence: stuff happens to Harry. Serious stuff. But his friends help him out. Also powerful wizards.

But come on, give the kid a break. He’s really dealing with a lot of stuff right now. You know how his parents died, right?

To be absolutely fair though, watching my sons read through them and seeing how excited they got has been fantastic. I don’t have to be a huge fan to enjoy their enthusiasm or to enjoy watching them attempt to walk down the stairs, eat lunch, or do various household tasks with their noses in a pair of a five-hundred-page books. If Rowling is a gateway drug to Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, or L’Engle, then a million points to Gryffindor.