BOOK REVIEW: Of gods and men —by Afrah Jamal
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
By Rick Riordan
Penguin; Pp 400; Rs 425
Olympian gods and goddesses are not exactly great role models; their moral compass is frequently out of order and no one dares suggest they get it fixed. The (stormy) age of the gods was great while it lasted but it is over. Rick Riordan reawakens the gods, gives them another shot at (eternal) life with a brand new home, creating a new legion of heroes and heroines in the process. He then combines all these elements to launch his fantasy series making mythology the centrepiece and family values the essential pillars of his newly redesigned universe.
How do these extinct entities fare in a (literary) world already overrun with vampires, witches, werewolves and wizards? Set in the present day, Riordan’s young adult fantasy novel tries to survive the onslaught of other supernatural beings by giving neglected Greek gods a clever makeover. The original Mount Olympus is still in Greece. Olympus, however, has been relocated. Their gods and goddesses currently reside above the modern day US while their half-human, half-god offspring live below — most of them in blissful oblivion of their divine origins or hero status.
Demigods running around in Manhattan saying, “Oh my gods”, being stalked by monsters and going on dangerous expeditions just like their predecessor Hercules is an intriguing premise. Except that readers coming off J K Rowling will be immediately struck by young Percy’s resemblance to his British counterpart.
If Percy Jackson feels like an extension of planet Rowling, it is probably because the major threads holding the plot together appear to have fallen straight out of her wizarding world: a regular child, special abilities, a training camp for half-bloods, a destiny. The similarity is strongest in The Lightning Thief, and subsequent books might touch upon Garth Nix’s Abhorsen accidentally before falling back on Greek legends, but they try very hard not to encroach too obviously upon Rowling territory. They do not always succeed but they do try.
Percy is the American narrator with a droll sense of humour who follows the traditional path of a Greek hero. He is a special case, not just because he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia but also because he suffers from a “divine” condition. One of his parents happens to be a god and he is not the only demigod in the neighbourhood. (The term ‘exclusive relationship’ seems to be missing from the god dictionary; ergo the rising demigod population). Now if one has ADHD and dyslexia combined, they may or may not have descended from the gods but all descendents of Olympians share this problem.
The gods, on the other hand, may have exchanged their togas for pinstriped suits but they are the same immortal, (if a little careless) vengeful beings. As the title suggests, Zeus, King of the gods, is missing a lightning bolt — the one he used to pose with (see old pictures). And unless it is returned, he and Poseidon will go to war and that would be a pity, especially since the divine headquarters is now in New York City, atop the Empire State Building.
Why New York one might ask? As Chiron, the centaur (former trainer to Hercules), helpfully explains, the heart of fire or Western civilisation has never been stationary and now rests comfortably in the land of the free.
The book is about Percy’s thrilling escapades, at camp and in the real world and epic monsters from ancient Greece drop by occasionally to prevent things from becoming too boring. This particular demigod will get a quest, discover his true lineage, embrace his destiny, etc, etc. But, as a mortal, he speaks like any disaffected teen, goes to a private academy for troubled children in upstate New York, and tries to deal with parental issues. The quests become more serious with each passing year and usually the fate of the world hangs in the balance. This is a who’s who of Greek mythological creatures from the highly acclaimed Medusa, Chimera and Cyclops to less well-known Empousa (vampire demon) and the Kampe. Now, many of them had already been vanquished by Greek heroes of yore but they have (considerately) returned for an encore performance, because monsters never truly die.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is the first of five books. It was a New York Times Notable Book for 2005 and won the Red House Children’s Book Award. The series leans heavily on action, is fast paced but not very lengthy. The movie version that had a slightly longer title (Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief), took liberties with the plot, casting an older boy, editing out major characters and basically rewriting the entire ending.
Percy Jackson’s adventures conclude in Book Five and Rick Riordan has already moved on to Egyptian mythology. The demigods are not quite ready to leave and Olympian adventures will continue in a spin-off called The Lost Hero, out by October 2010.