So, I’ve been having this problem with fiction lately. The last eight books I’ve read have been about philosophy, religion and physics. It’s gotten to the point that my wife told me last night I should have been a physicist (really, I’d be clueless). But whenever I pick up a novel, I can’t get into the story, because I am distracted by my ambitions. I cannot help but compare it to my own books, and if the story is weak, I’ll rework it in my head, coming up with ways it can be improved. But eventually, I knew I’d have to get back to the business of reading, so that the literary neurons in my brain start to fire, forming the raw materials I need to build worlds. More importantly, I had to remind myself why I love story, and of the reasons people like to read.
My nephew, Arthur, told me about The Lightning Thief many years ago, which he enjoyed better than Harry Potter. This is coming from a kid who can talk to me about video games forever. The fact that he could enjoy any book came as a surprise to me, but I’ve long hesitated picking it up to find out why.
As someone of Greek descent who has written his own mythology—The Nomad—I am a bit sensitive, especially when the author, Rick Riordan, doesn’t even share my heritage. Now, I’m not saying that a writer can’t or shouldn’t write about a culture other than his own, but it still stings a little, knowing very few Greeks who know or care as much about these stories. There probably isn’t a soul on the planet who hasn’t heard of Hercules or Zeus. Historically speaking, our mythology defines who we are as a people. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are all influenced by it in some way. When Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he did so, in part, because he lamented the British not having a mythology of their own. The legends of King Arthur and his knights came long after most of the world’s folktales were established, in 1485, after Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte d’ Arthur. By contrast, Homer’s The Iliad dates to between 1200-1100 BC. These stories were memorized by my great ancestors, passed down through oration long before writing fiction was invented. So I cannot help but be bothered by the fact that an entire generation will be learning these stories exclusively from a non-Greek.
Another thing I find irksome, writing in an established canon, with its own brilliantly realized backstory and characters and plot lines, feels a lot like cheating. Fantasy writers are particularly burdened with having to invent worlds from scratch, but by choosing to write Greek mythology, Riordan has most of his work cut out for him. He didn’t have to make up Zeus or Hades or Ares, all of whom appear in the story, nor did he have to create the monsters his heroes would be fighting, like the furies and the minotaur and the chimera. He also didn’t have to come up with any fantastic locations, like Hades or Mount Olympus. While it is true that all writers borrow, Riordan tends to borrow more than most. Tolkien did not invent elves or dwarves or trolls or dragons, but his interpretations were expansive to the point of reinvention, and The Hobbit is its own story. The same can be said of JK Rowling. She appropriates liberally from modern myth, with wands and witches and flying broomsticks, but adds enough originality to make the wizarding world hers. Compare that to The Lightning Thief, where the heroes encounter a bedmaker who stretches people to fit his mattresses, or cuts off their feet if they’re too tall. The tale is derived, almost verbatim, from the Greek.
Mythology aside, much of the story is cliche, copying heavily from Harry Potter. Just like Harry, Percy starts off as a normal kid with a miserable life. His stepfather is an abusive jerk, he has few friends, and he is having trouble at school due to his dyslexia and ADHD. Unbeknownst to him, however, Percy is special, in that he is a wiz—I mean, demi-god. It’s all explained to him by his half-human protector, Chiron, and not soon after, Percy leaves his normal life and home to live in a special school. Despite these blatant similarities, I have no doubt publishers were thrilled by Riordan’s manuscript, having found a somewhat original way to ape the success of Potter. They’re not wizards, they’re demi-gods! As if that weren’t enough, Percy must embark on a quest with his two closest friends, Annabeth and Grover (one boy, one girl). Of course, in a Snape-Quirrell-like twist, the real villain turns out to be someone unexpected.
Now, you could argue that, with the 19 million he earned last year, and all of the R’s in his name, that I’m simply jealous, and I’d be lying to deny it. Either way, why should I bother reading it? I never thought I would, until something happened to change my outlook. My 11 year old daughter got the book and loved it. And why wouldn’t she? She isn’t a jaded writer like myself, and she does not know, nor care, about the stuff I do. Having never read Greek mythology, The Lightning Thief is a great introduction, and having only read the first Potter book, its cliched elements are less tiresome. More importantly, heroes like Percy and Harry resonate deeply with children, because they speak to the deep seated concerns children have. What if my parents don’t love me? What if I am not special?
With this mind, I decided to sit down with my daughter to get a kid’s perspective on The Lightning Thief, because, after all, Riordan didn’t write it with me in mind …
Nick: So, Jasmine, what did you like about The Lightning Thief?
Jasmine: I like his [Percy’s] sword, how it becomes a pen. I also like how the demi-gods and other mythological creatures were disguised in the real world.
Nick: Yes, I remember when they were in Hades, and a TV evangelist who had stolen some money was being taken away to be punished. Percy asked about the evangelist’s Christian faith, and Grover remarked how people tend to see things based on their beliefs. I found that very interesting, a clever way of dealing with ancient myths in a modern setting.
Aside from that, what were your favorite parts?
Jasmine: I really liked when Percy and his friends went to this hotel in Las Vegas. It was a really nice place, with arcade games and free food and everything a kid could want, but it turned out to be a trap. The heroes were really enjoying it, until Percy noticed how one kid talked and dressed funny, like in the 70’s. Turns out, the kid had been there for 40 years! Percy was smart enough to figure out what was happening, although he’d been there five days without realizing it.
Nick: Yes, that was one of my favorite parts too. It reminded me a bit of Odysseus and the sirens, how their beautiful singing lured sailors to a rocky shore, where their ships would sink.
OK, so what was your least favorite part?
Jasmine: I didn’t like the beginning, when they’re driving and they are attacked by the Minotaur, and the Minotaur “kills” Percy’s mom.
Nick: What about that didn’t work for you?
Jasmine: I just thought it was sad.
Nick: Don’t you think that makes you care about the characters more?
Nick: So, isn’t that a good thing, in a way?
Jasmine: For the reader, maybe. Not for Percy!
Nick: Would you recommend The Lightning Thief to a friend?
Jasmine: Yes, it was very interesting, and great for kids starting to learn Greek mythology.
Nick: Hey Arthur [really] what a surprise seeing you here! How old were you when you read the book and what did you think of it?
Arthur: Oh, hey Nick. Yeah, I’m here. I read it in 2006, when I was 11 [just like Jasmine!]. I thought the story was very interesting because it took old myths and put them in a modern context. It’s how I imagine the ancient stories would have been told if they’d been written during our time.
Nick: Looking back at it, do you think it would be as interesting now that you’re older?
Arthur: Not really. When the fifth book came out, The Last Olympian, I’d lost interest. I was in high school at the time, and the writing felt as though it hadn’t matured, not in the way Harry Potter did.
Nick: So it seems like he [Riordan] focuses on the youth demographic.
Nick: I agree. Rowling is a more accomplished author, and her work holds up, even today.
OK, guys, how do you rate it, from one to four stars?
Jasmine: *** 1/2
Arthur: *** 1/2
Nick: ** 1/2