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Old School Wednesdays Joint Review: The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1) by Rick Riordan

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

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Title: The Lightening Thief

Author: Rick Riordan

Genre: Fantasy, Children

Publisher: Disney
Publication date: First published 2006
Paperback: 377 pages

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Percy Jackson is a good kid, but he can’t seem to focus on his schoolwork or control his temper. And lately, being away at boarding school is only getting worse—Percy could have sworn his pre-algebra teacher turned into a monster and tried to kill him. When Percy’s mom finds out, she knows it’s time that he knew the truth about where he came from, and that he go to the one place he’ll be safe. She sends Percy to Camp Half Blood, a summer camp for demigods (on Long Island), where he learns that the father he never knew is Poseidon, God of the Sea. Soon a mystery unfolds and together with his friends—one a satyr and the other the demigod daughter of Athena—Percy sets out on a quest across the United States to reach the gates of the Underworld (located in a recording studio in Hollywood) and prevent a catastrophic war between the gods.

Stand alone or series: First in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series

How did we get this book: Bought + Review Copy from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print

Review:

Ana’s Take:

My interaction with the world of Percy Jackson had been brief until now: I watched the two movies, had popcorn fun with them but never felt moved to pick up the novels to read them. But recently, my best friend’s 11-year-old daughter (take heed, publishers, this is not a “boy” series. Repeat after me: there is no such thing) became obsessed with the books and the stories and I have been sending her Percy Jackson gifts and learning more about the series (which PJ character are you? I am Athena, says the quiz she made me take). THEN, *full disclosure* we were invited to become members of the Percy Pack – a multi-blog celebration of Percy Jackson’s tenth anniversary. After discussing with Thea – who had actually read and enjoyed the books before – we decided to start reading (or re-reading) the series for Old School Wednesdays.

And you know…I liked this book much, much more than I expected?

Percy Jackson is a regular kid who is always in trouble at school. Who struggles with ADHD and dyslexia, who never knew his father and who has been experiencing weird encounters with what can only be described as “monsters”. After a series of dangerous situations, Percy learns that he is in fact a wizard, Harry1 demigod, the half mortal son one of the Greek gods. Not knowing whose son he is, Percy moves into the Camp Half Blood for the duration of the summer, where he will learn about his heritage and to defend himself. Until a time comes when he must go on a Quest with his two closest friends, the Satyr Grover and Annabeth the clever daughter of Athena. There is a War looming in the horizon because someone had the temerity to steal something from Zeus. And Percy Jackson needs to retrieve it.

At first glance, The Lightening Thief is a super familiar plot that takes on the Special Kid with Unique Abilities and makes him go on a Quest to become a literal Greek Hero. But this book also has verve, Percy’s voice is snarky and funny, the characters are perfectly loveable in their familiarity, the friendships develop nicely and the female character is smart and cool. Plus, there are genuine surprises and twists. It’s also a fun take on Greek Mythology that updates the Greek gods2 and places them in the context of modern day America where they continue their absurd squabbling for power. And their squabbling is shown as just that: ridiculous, self-important and egotistical.

Which brings me to one of the most interesting things about this first book: despite the fun overtone of adventure!quest!friendship! there is this edge of darkness with regards to the Greek gods and how their narcissistic actions affect the kids and their families. Even in the context of a book for kids that greatly glosses over the more problematic aspects of these gods, those undertones are there: the way those families are built around a foundation where one of the parents is a mortal who was left behind raising a child that can get killed at time; where the god-parent falls in love but always leaves; where these kids must be raised always in peril for their own lives under the stress of high expectations. It makes for complicated, dysfunctional and often heart-breaking family dynamics. Percy’s own family unit includes an abusive stepfather whose entrance in the picture is heavily hinted as necessary in order to keep Percy alive. This is a terrible weight to place on a kid. I liked the way that Percy’s mother’s agency was portrayed within this context too.

Another great aspect of the novel is how Percy is a dyslexic, hyperactive kid who now has a chance to become a hero. It’s a pretty cool message for children, I think. All in all, an enjoyable experience and I actually am looking forward to reading more.

Thea’s Take:

My experience with Percy Jackson actually stems back to my youngest sister, Tara.

Like many kids, I’ve always been fond of (and familiar with) Greek mythology – my name, as a matter of fact, is derived from that of a Titan; my middle sister’s name (Talia) is also of Greek Mythological origins. I remember, fondly, one of my first books was a rather long book on the Greek Gods and finding my name in the index was, like, the coolest thing ever. I digress. My youngest sister, Tara, was the one who clued me into Percy Jackson and the Olympians – and after learning about the books, I quickly devoured them (at least, the first three). And I enjoyed them very, very much.

Years later, I remember watching the film and thoroughly enjoying it. And now, even more years later, I find myself reading the books again and loving them even more than before.

Percy Jackson’s story is a formulaic hero’s quest – he’s the reluctant hero, called to action by forces greater than himself. He’s seemingly ordinary, even a screw-up, expelled from countless schools over the years and a magnet for trouble; but it turns out that young Perseus actually has a destiny greater than anyone ever could have predicted. You see, Percy is a demigod – a half-blood child of a mortal and immortal parent. Percy isn’t just any demigod, though; he’s the son of one of the Big Three (who solemnly swore not to have any other human children, for the fate of the world) (WWII was a byproduct of the offspring of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades). Not just any of the Big Three, but Poseidon – who hasn’t had a child in… well, a really, really long time.

Twelve-year-old Percy finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy much larger than he ever could have imagined. His Quest to retrieve a stolen artifact of great power is of paramount importance: the fate of the world (and all of the Olympians) depends on it.

There’s a lot to be leery of when it comes to Percy Jackson – Greek Gods and stories about the Olympians are pretty common (one could even say that the market is even saturated). Not to mention rereads are always tricky things – what one enjoys in the moment isn’t necessarily what one enjoys in a year, or five years. Luckily, Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief? It totally stands the test of time. I loved this book even more this time around than I did when I first read it, many moons ago.

See, there’s also a lot to love when it comes to Percy Jackson – the worldbuilding, the humor, the surprising depth when it comes to familial relationships and tensions, the magic, the message about growing up. For all of the jokes about Percy being a New Yorkified version of Harry Potter, there is a huge grain of truth to that assessment: Percy Jackson is as immersive, magical, and entertaining as his wizard-muggle-mudblood bretheren. I love the world of half-bloods, the weaving of Greek mythology with the mundane in true urban fantasy style. Most of all, I love the relationships and the implied subtext with so much of this book. As Ana discusses in her part of the review, one of the awesomest things about Percy Jackson is the fact that the Gods are portrayed as petty, unchanging, never-growing characters, forever locked in their petty battles. While this isn’t a particularly new or innovative treatment of the Greek Gods and their mythological brethren, the really interesting thing about this particular treatment is the way it extends to human families, especially from the perspective of the children. Annabeth’s relationship with her mother, Goddess Athena, and her mortal professor reluctant father is a far cry from the relationship Percy has with his kindhearted mortal mother. There are the implications that other children are abandoned by their parents while still others have regular relationships with theirs – it’s a cool balance that reflects real life, in a smart, non-invasive way.

But, as much as I love these thematic elements and balance, the real reason why The Lightning Thief is so successful is because of its super-ridiculously-addictive action. Percy, Annabeth and Grover travel from coast to coast in a great Quest, meeting monsters of all sorts and powers along the way – there’s a casino in vegas bent on keeping young souls within its walls, unchanging, forever; there’s Hades and his underworld operations problems; there’s a super-creepy booby-trapped version of the tunnel of love; even Medusa herself.

In other words: Percy Jackson is fun.

I loved it, and I can’t wait to continue the re-reading adventure with Sea of Monsters very soon.

Rating:

Ana: 6 – Good

Thea: 7 – Excellent

  1. Sorry, inevitable Harry Potter shout out, the two series are remarkably similar without being Xerox copies
  2. That hand-waves all the rape and creepy sexual stuff in the myths. But ok, fine, these ARE children’s books after all
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2 Comments

  • Catherine Faris King
    July 8, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    I’ve read the first book; I think I was a little too old for it, and as a big Greek mythology buff, I can get very picky about how the gods are portrayed — and Riordan and I disagreed here and there 🙂

    Worse than that, though, was his apparent hate-on for the city of Los Angeles! It is the entrance to the Underworld (okay, I’ll buy that) — it reminds Percy of the god Ares (um, have you BEEN to Los Angeles? Maybe the freeways at rush hour are Ares’ domain, but I think the rest of the town is too chill for that) — and Annabeth warns Percy not to go wading into Santa Monica Beach, saying the water is too polluted (as opposed to the pristine waters off of New York City?) The immense negativity surrounding my hometown was just weird — although hilarious, with time. I just wonder why Riordan takes such offense to LA.

  • Zahra
    July 15, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    Delighted to see you’re (re)reading these! I adore Percy Jackson & his world–as someone who read both series as an adult, I can honestly say I prefer this one to Harry Potter; I love Hermione, but Riordan does better by his female characters. (Though he does even worse by his characters of color, which was a low bar I didn’t think anyone could squeeze under. To his credit, the Heroes of Olympus sequel series emphatically corrects this problem.)

    Also want to add that as a longtime domestic violence advocate this book understands abuse in ways most adult media doesn’t. Percy’s mom has very good reasons to stay with her abuser, and in the end Percy realizes he can’t save his mother, but he can give her tools to make her own decision and respect her choices. I wish more media was this realistic, instead of relying on the hero-can-save-the-abused-woman-to-prove-his-own-worth (cough*Sense8*cough), which is a terrible model that hurts survivors in real life.

    Re the commenter above, part of the charm & cleverness of Riordan’s series is that he interweaves the Greek myths with a mythologizing of America. His depiction of Los Angeles probably isn’t accurate to the city, but it is deeply true to LA’s place in America’s mythology, and to how most Americans think about LA. (This is even more true of his depiction of Texas, where Riordan actually lives.)

    To Riordan’s credit, he realized how US-centric this approach was & the 2nd PJ series & Kane Chronicles explicitly expands the cast & setting to the rest of the world; but I can’t tell you how many people I know who’ve picked the book because the entrance to the Underworld is in Los Angeles. It intuitively makes sense in terms of American mythology.

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