Book Review: the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan

First a disclaimer:  if you’ve seen either or both of the Percy Jackson movies PLEASE do not judge the books by that.  The first movie was marginally tolerable, but the second not even worth seeing.  Between the two of them, they veered so far from the books as to be virtually unrecognizable.  And, as usual, the books are infinitely better.  It’s a shame, too, since this could well have been the “new Harry Potter series” for movies, if they hadn’t trashed them from the outset.

The books, though – that is another matter.  First of all, understand that there are two series, though they do connect.  The original 5 books fall under the collective title of Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  The second set of 5 is called Percy Jackson and the Heroes of Olympus.  All together, they only span about six years of real time – from about age 12 to about age 17 (similar to the Harry Potter books, though that is pretty much where the similarity ends).

In Percy, Riordan has created quite the smart-mouthed, irreverent hero.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Overall, Percy is a good guy, and loyal to his friends.  He just isn’t overly impressed with authority figures who are full of themselves – but, then, who of us is, really?

The initial books are set solely in the United States, though they range from coast to coast.  Riordan brings in familiar landmarks, but presents them in unique ways.  Some of these places, you will never be able to look at them in the same way again.  There is lots of fighting, but done in new and interesting ways each time so that it doesn’t become stale.  And because these center around “mythical” characters, battling of monsters can be done in very creative ways.

It does not take long to know these characters well and to love (or hate) them.  You root for the good guys and boo the bad guys.  And you are confused by some of the questionable characters – which side are they really on?  The final book provides an excellent and satisfying conclusion to the initial series.

With a “sequel” series, one tends to be a little leery.  Too often it means going to the well one too many times.  I can’t say that I liked this second series so well as the first – I felt it had more problems – but still I enjoyed it very much and do reread it.  In these stories, Riordan tries a new writing style.  We got the first series all from Percy’s POV.  This series changes POV by chapter (though sometimes there are multiple chapters in a row from the same POV).  While it is interesting to get a new take on this world and familiar characters as seen by others, it also introduced more of a stiltedness.  Some of the dialogue was too forced and felt uncomfortable.

For all that, however, the stories are good (mostly, the final book was a somewhat weak conclusion, in my view).  The beauty of the new series is all the new characters we meet and fall in love with, and then get to see interacting with the familiar characters.  One big thing in Riordan’s favor, in both series though more evident here, is the diversity of the characters.  We don’t only meet white male heroes – there are females, Chinese, black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, Canadian and so forth.  They aren’t all tall and good-looking – some are short, bad-tempered and unattractive to the eye.  Indeed, until the second series, one of Riordan’s weaknesses was in portraying the stereotypical “perfect” person.  That still lingers to some extent, but the second time out he lets them be more than just a pretty face with an empty head.

Just like Harry Potter, these books are aimed toward the middle-school crowd, but they can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

Riordan also did a three book series surrounding the Egyptian gods and is currently writing books in a Norse gods series (the second book is now published).  Additionally, he has a series entitled The Trials of Apollo which ties to the Percy Jackson books.  Only the first book of that series is currently available.  I won’t try to review the unfinished series at this point.  The finished Egyptian series, The Kane Chronicles, has some good stuff, but I didn’t find myself as drawn into that world.  I couldn’t see anything specifically wrong with the stories, so perhaps that was more due to my lack of familiarity with those legends/myths.  Others may enjoy them more than I did.

Percy Jackson books:  Recommended!

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