Thursday, February 11, 2010

Consider the Source: Percy Jackson & The Olympians

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 9:33 PM

Lightning_thief

If you’ve seen the posters or trailers for Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, you might think the new fantasy film is a little derivative of Harry Potter. That isn’t true, though. It’s actually highly derivative of Harry Potter. I’m actually a fan of Rick Riordan’s five-book series, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities to J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard, especially in the first book:

Harry Potter Percy Jackson, a boy who suffers from a lightning bolt scar dyslexia and ADHD, lives with his vulgar, boorish relatives stepfather. One day, an encounter with a flying owl harpy reveals the existence of a magical world of monsters and witches Greek gods, where he's already famous as The Boy Who Lived a son of Poseidon. With the help of his aged, long-haired mentor Dumbledore Chiron, our young hero learns more of his heritage and powers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry Camp Half-Blood, where students reside in separate houses cabins based on their divine parents, and enjoy playing Quidditch with broomsticks Capture the Flag with swords. Despite run-ins with the bullying Draco Clarisse, child of the powerful Malfoy family Ares, our hero finds two best friends in brainy female Hermione Granger Annabeth Chase and less nimble-witted comic relief Ron Weasley Grover Underwood. The first book depicts the search for a powerful talisman, The Sorcerer’s Stone Zeus’s Master bolt, and anticipates the return of a powerful, currently disembodied arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort Chronos the Titan.

That said, if you can get past the persistent feeling of deja vu, the Percy Jackson series turns out to be a lot of fun. Where Rowling taps a distinctly English sense of humor along the lines of Roald Dahl and Douglas Adams, Riordan riffs on all-American traditions like the "road story:" each book involves a quest that sends Percy and pals on some kind of cross-country journey, although the second book, The Sea of Monsters, is primarily nautical, and the fourth, The Battle of the Labyrinth, spends plenty of time underground. One of the striking things about the Camp Half-Blood books is that they only spend a few chapters at Camp Half-Blood.

Percy's sarcastic, first-person narration also provides plenty of humor, as the chapter titles suggest. Headings in The Lightning Thief include "I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher," "I Battle My Jerk Relative" and "I Plunge To My Death." Riordan also displays a puckish sense of humor in the ways he updates Greek mythology to suit 21st century America. Mount Olympus, for instance, perpetually floats above the most powerful city of Western Civilization, so here it's located on "the 600th floor" of the Empire State Building. In The Sea of Monsters, Annabeth reveals that some franchise stores pop up so fast because they're linked to the life force of monsters. A "Monster Donut" restaurant turns out to be a nest of a seven-headed hydra, which has a plastic bib reading "I'm a Monster Donut Kid!" around each neck.

The Percy Jackson books improve as they go along and find creative ways to incorporate gods, monsters and heroes from Greek mythology: The Sea of Monsters and the final book, The Last Olympian, contain elaborate parallels to Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, respectively. Riordan has a gift for pace, momentum and compelling action scenes, and The Last Olympian's turns out to be quite the page turner, culminating five books of build-up with an spectacular siege narrative in which Percy and his allies defend the island of Manhattan against a horde of mythic bad guys. The Last Olympian makes "the Battle of Hogwarts" in the final Harry Potter book look puny by comparison and proves that Riordan can thrive outside the shadow of J.K. Rowling.

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