Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rick Riordan: The Lightning Thief

I first learned about Rick Riordan's series "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" thanks to the movie adaptation that was billed as the next big fantasy franchise when it was released earlier this year. I would review the movie first, but the movie sucked. Or rather, to take a quote attributed to Samuel Johnson, the film "was both good and original; but what was good was not original, and what was original was not good." The film had moments of clarity and wit that truly astonished me, but those moments were clearly derived from the novel.

"The Lightning Thief" is one of the more remarkable books (and the beginning of one of the more remarkable series) that I've encountered for a while. In my review of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" I made mention of that film's inventiveness, the unrelenting wave of images and impressions brought together. That trait is also present in the book, and even if it is not so overpowering, there is a fluidity and wit to the writing that makes this a truly compelling read.

This novel introduces us to Percy Jackson, a troubled teen with learning disabilities and daddy issues, who discovers that he is in fact a demigod, the son of Poseidon himself. His best friend Grover (a satyr) and his history teacher (the centaur Chiron) bring Percy to Camp Half-Blood, where he meets a legion of other demigods, including that lovely yet unattainable Annabeth, daughter of Athena. But with the prospect looming of a war among Olympians, Percy is sent on a quest to the Underworld to retrieve his mother and find the location of the bolt from Hades. Along the way, he battles Furies and Gorgons and gods (oh my!) and discovers a secret that could threaten the halls of Olympus itself.

Melodramatics aside, this was one of the most enjoyable reads I've had all summer. Since I was young I devoured ancient and classical mythologies -- Greek was always my favorite, though Norse came in a close second. The author clearly came from a similar background, since the number of references and inside jokes in this novel could stun the Erymanthian Boar in its tracks.

That isn't to say that this book doesn't have its weaknesses. There are occasions when the author tries too hard to be clever, to impress his young adult audience, and comes out sounding rather juvenile himself. I am quite familiar with the danger, having written a novel myself when I was 13, so I was able to forgive him for the occasional display of narrative immaturity.

Moreover, I think the audience and form were well suited for the story that needed telling. If this had been fiction written for adults, there would necessarily be several changes: an increased attention to the atmosphere, a greater development of the characters, and significantly less emphasis on clever juxtapositions. By writing it for a younger audience, Riordan forced himself to write with more brevity, continually move the plot forward, and let the imagination of the audience fill in whatever gaps that remain. Riordan is a master of this form as he also maintains a remarkably diverse vocabulary throughout the work, and is able to establish definite moods for each location with minimal fuss.

The central image, the great conceit of this story is the transposition of Mount Olympus to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. But with that image comes an entire history, as Chiron explains to Percy: "The gods move with the heart of the West.... [Western Civilization] is a living force, a collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years.... [When Rome fell,] the gods moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while. Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there. They spent several centuries in England. All you need to do is look at the architecture. People do not forget the gods." This statement does more than merely explain the narrative conceit. It presents, it personifies, it recasts this abstraction called "tradition" as a living thing, a hearth moving through the nations of history. It is a powerful image, and one that will last far longer in my mind than other, far more "adult" works of literature.

"The Lightning Thief" is an excellent novel, made all the more impressive for its brevity. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the gods, or with a taste in good literature.

1 comment:

  1. Hey man, this is Chris Kyle and I saw you post this on my Facebook feed. I watched the movie the other week and though I didn't find it abysmal, it certainly wasn't great. However, the book, along with the series, has made me quite happy. I'm on the fourth one now and getting all the more sucked in. Have you read the third one yet? If not, I bet you'll love it. Greek mythology is definitely an interest of mine, and the third book takes it to new levels.

    Professor Rendleman has gotten me into movies this past year as well. So I definitely appreciate you doing a movie blog.