Wed
Jul 21 2010 5:46pm

Book Review: Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief

Quick, tell me what children’s book series main character fits this description: a young boy who learns that he has superpowers and is destined to be a hero enters a new school where he makes fast friends with a brainy girl and a geeky boy, makes fast enemies with an entire section of the school, and excels at their unique sport.

No, I’m not talking about Harry Potter. The hero in question is Percy Jackson, who may not have a lightning scar, but does set out on a quest to return a lightning bolt in the first book of the series.

What’s the twist? Instead of simply being gifted with magic, Percy is the son of a Greek God. His friends aren’t mere mortals with spell books. They are Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, and Grover, a satyr. The section of school that hates him isn’t the old home of the series’ big evil, but the most competitive section of students, the children of the God of War, Ares. And instead of Quidditch, Percy finds himself participating in a chariot race.

The world of The Lightning Thief brings Greek mythology into the modern world. Who knew that Mount Olympus was located on floor 1000 of the Empire State Building? Or that the Greek gods are responsible for the spread of Western civilization? Unbeknownst to us, we walk among monsters who scour the Earth hoping to find the children of Gods before the Gods do in order to eliminate their competition.

How do the kids stay safe? They head to Camp Half-Blood, where Dionysus, the God of wine, helps train the kids in the ways of half-bloods, those who are half-human and half-God.

My favorite part of the book is the opening. It directly addresses the reader, inviting those who read the book to imagine this world as a part of their own. A little cheesy? Yes. But it’s the sort of thing that gets your imagination excited when you’re eight—what if this was really part of my world?—and it hasn’t gotten old for me as an adult.

The book also reaches out to kids with learning disabilities. Percy has two, ADHD and dyslexia, as does the son of the author. These are explained as simply “symptoms” of being the spawn of a God. Honestly, how could we expect children with Godly blood running in their veins to sit still through class? And apparently, Percy’s brain is just wired to read ancient Greek instead of modern English.

I like the idea of children thinking of those disorders as unique strengths rather than weaknesses. These are things that set them apart from everyone else and make them special. Percy struggles with his disorder—he’s been kicked out of numerous boarding schools before landing at Camp Half-Blood—but he doesn’t use the disorder as an excuse. He clearly wants to be good, and finally in this new world, he is able to not only fit in but excel.

Like Hogwarts, the camp is divided into different sections of students, and these factions war with one another. They are, of course, based on who your Godly parent is. When Percy first arrives at the camp, he has no idea who that could be. His father never stepped up and “claimed” him as has happened to many other children at the camp.

What bothered me about this section of the book was how long it took Percy, his friends, and the teachers to realize he was the son of Neptune. Trust me, I didn’t spoil much for you. You’ll figure it out in the first 10 pages, but the characters don’t until much later—100 pages later, more or less—even after several instances of water acting strange around him. I wish the author had given his audience—even the younger set—a little more credit.

From there, Percy is, of course, sent out on a mission. Zeus’ lightning bolt is stolen, and he is convinced Percy was the criminal who pulled it off. So Percy and his two pals set out on a quest to find whoever did steal it to return it to Zeus before he sets off a massive war between all the Gods.

The middle of the book feels very episodic. The crew encounters one monster after another, but it never feels like it’s building toward anything. The urban fantasy elements never quite work for me; something about the world just doesn’t feel lived in. Many of their foes are not really that menacing. In fact, some of them are downright laughable. Ares is just a biker, “dressed in a red muscle shirt and black jeans and a black leather duster, with a hunting knife strapped to his thigh” and wearing red wraparound shades. And Percy is often a mediocre hero. Instead of figuring out situations on his own or with the help of friends, a deus ex machina (literally, of course) swoops in and helps him, usually in the form of a power he was unaware of before.

Unlike Harry Potter, the novel feels a bit written down to children, but not so much that it’s painful to get through. On the contrary, it’s an easy read and the characters are likeable, so I enjoyed the journey despite the uneven writing, and will likely be reading the next novel in the series soon. However, this is one journey I imagine you would enjoy most if reading it in the company of a child.


Juliana Weiss-Roessler has been writing professionally for 10 years. Currently, she’s an editor for PinkRaygun, a geek girl e-zine, and a food and organic living contributor to Savings.com. She has ghostwritten one sci-fi novel and is now ghostwriting a second one. You can learn more about her writing at WeissRoessler.com or follow her geekery and upcoming Comic-Con adventures on Twitter @julweiss.

16 comments
Leigh Butler
1. leighdb
I was inspired to read this series after seeing (and being rather underwhelmed by) the movie.

I quite liked the books, by contrast. Yes, the Harry Potter... er, let's be generous and call it "homage" - is pretty prevalent, but there was enough originality there to make the story enjoyable on its own, and some of the modern-world-meets-ancient-myth notions were quite clever. The Lotus Casino in Vegas was rather brilliant, I thought.

You'll also be interested to know that the writing improves substantially in the sequels, in my opinion.
Teresa Jusino
2. TeresaJusino
Hello Julianna! Just wanted to say welcome! :)

Also wanted to say that I never had any interest in reading this series, and your review confirms my instincts...
Sydo Zandstra
3. Fiddler
Like Leigh, I found the books to be a decent read. Certainly better than the movie.

But IIRC, Riordan did write these books for his son. So comparing them to HP would be comparing grapes to apples, I guess...
Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
I liked the books - pretty darned high on the clever scale - and echo Leigh's point that the writing improves in the later books. In particular, the final book was very well done and was pretty dark and sophisticated for the target age group. The movie had some good visuals and appealing acting but some truly outrageous and unnecessary deviations from the book - combining the characters of Annabeth and the what's her name daughter Ares was bad. Telling everyone he was the son of Poseidon from the start and skipping the reveal scenes was worse. And don't get me started on making them 17 rather than 12 years old....
Michael Grosberg
5. Michael_GR
I think the review is missing one of the key factors that made the book so attractive: the first-person-smartass narrative. From the outset, it is clear Percy is no goody-two-shoes, serious Harry Potter clone. He has a sense of humor and continually offers a running commentary on everything he experiences, and it's this rather than the plot ( which is admittedly a Potter knockoff) that makes this series attractive. Even the chapter titles are funny, containing such quirky gems as "I accidentally vaporize my pre-algebra teacher" or "I become supreme lord of the bathroom".

Other aspects of the series that are worth mentioning:

*It's very, very American. American landmarks - and especially New York - are interspersed throughout the series and are put to good use. The action doesn't happen in some magical neverland - it's very urban and modern and doesn't have that old fashioned British feel.

*There's a running theme of single parents and absentee parents. Percy, being a demigod, was raised by his mother. How do these kids think of those parents they never met? And the single parents left with children, do they miss their divine lovers?

*Environmentalist and conservation issues are prevalent in the series, thankfully handled in a rather unobtrusive manner which does not feel forced or "educational".

So don't expect any great plot, it's just one random encounter with a mythological monster after another, and the supporting characters, the school setup and the rest obviously modeled along the lines of the Potterverse. But it's just so much more fun to read.
Rachel Hyland
7. RachelHyland
@ Juliana

Yes, but when Poseidon does finally claim him, how kick ass is that scene? Pretty damn kick ass, I say! As for the book being "written down"... I dunno. I didn't feel it, and if anything thought that some of the later books (which I trust you will read?) aimed maybe a little high for the target demographic. Anything in particular that makes you say that?

Michael_GR @ 5

I concur with you entirely! The only thing I would add is a little something about the Percy Jackson series also being an excellent primer to the field of comparative religion. I've said it before elsewhere, though, so I'm just going to quote... uh... me:

"That Greek mythology was once a true religion is hard for some to grasp, especially those from any largely monotheist culture; when gods show up in a Disney cartoon, it’s hard to take them at all seriously. Percy Jackson and the Olympians, however, shows that Ancient belief as it once was: the dominant religion of its time. What Passion of the Christ (and those Stephen Baldwin movies) do for Christian doctrine, and those Scientology "documentaries" do for L. Ron Hubbard, Riordan does for the Pantheon. And while Riordan’s series is clearly fantasy, and no one is suggesting that kids should renounce Sunday School and go build temples to Zeus instead (plus, let’s please avoid all the human sacrifice, shall we?), Percy Jackson is, at the very least, a mind-expanding lesson in tolerance and understanding of other cultures’ philosophies. In Ancient Greece, The Bible would have been the equivalent of Homer, the Qur’an that of Herodotus. Riordan's series makes that point ably, without belaboring it. If for no other reason, I would love it just for that."

But also, 'cause it's awesome.
Dr. Thanatos
8. Dr. Thanatos
I don't require all my reading to be dark and laden with philosophical hoohaa; sometimes I like it fun. And this book is fun.

Perhaps I see it that way because I heard it before I read it. My family and I got the audiobooks. Maybe it's the way Jesse Bernstein injects personality into the readings that don't come through on the written page but this was fun. Even my wife, who doesn't always go for kid-lit, was laughing at the cute bits.

Yes, it's a bit deriviative but it's fun to read/listen to as a family.
Dr. Thanatos
9. Am Burg
I would like to comment on the book The Lightning Theif. I like how there is Greek Mythology in it. I wasn't really into Greek Mythology until I read the book. I think the book is a lot better than the movie. I like the part when Percy is in Camp Half Blood and he's in playing Capture the Flag. I like when he get power from the water. I thought it was a very action-packed novel.
Dr. Thanatos
10. Aphrodite
This is definitely one of my most favorite books. Same with the movie. It has an amazing twist and is also very entertaining. Once you start reading you can't stop.
Dr. Thanatos
11. Lord of the South
Dear friends, my aplogies for pulling up this old post, but i do have some things to say of this book

For me, i read the second book onwards, skipping the first (Sea of Monsters was given to me as a gift). I watched the movie first - and i do agree it's bad. Authors these days don't care much about how the movies turn out. A director, who read and loved the books himself must be the one to direct it

The first thing i noticed about this series is it's readablity - it has minimum descriptions, good humor and all the stuff for a good children's novel. It's a good thing that the author's writing has improved over time, otherwise the series would have spinned off into obscurity
Dr. Thanatos
16. Cordelia
I loved this book. This review, in my opinion, doesn't really fit it. I thought it was brilliant. I wasn't aware, the first time I read it, that Percy was a son of Posiden, untill hem was claimed. There were too many possibilities, and besides, there is magic in the camp. It says so in the book. I, personally, liked the fact that Percy wasn't a super, steriotypical hero, because- well, because it's steriotypical. I liked the fact that he needed help, and admitted it. It made it more realistic. It was a twist in the plot that set it apart from other books, because of course the main charecter is going to be the hero, but when you finish the series (because I judge all series books as one story all together), it makes it much more interesting, amd different. In the later books, he stops discovering new powers, but in the first, he's still getting used to this new 'demigod' thing, and of course the main chaercter can't die. The books are NOT a Harry Potter knockoff; true, they're similar in the way that all good books are, but... just, no. I loved the writing style, with the humor and all. It made it feel real, like a twelve-year-old boy actually ws narrating it. I aslo liked how it was completely apropriate, unlike some other books I could name (ahem, Hungr Games); I also liked how the monsters turned to dust, never really died, etc. I wouldn't feel comfortable with Percy if the monsters seemed more... human. (again, Hunger Games.) But seriously, the Percy Jackson books are really awesome. I didn't think the review was very accurate (no offence), at least not compared to my reading expierience with the book. I read it in a day. Every time. I've read it three times. It's an amazing book (series).
Dr. Thanatos
17. Cordelia
I forgot to add, writing in the style that Rick Riordan did for that book is very hard to do without making it seem cheesy and poorly written. He walked a fine line there... and walked it perfectly. I have read many essays written my my classmate that attempt to write in the same style as Riordan and fain miserably. I have read published books that can't get it right. My favorite chapter title is in the last book, and it is "We Win Fabulous Prizes". We all need a little humor in reading to lighten it up, especialy because the Percy Jackson series would be horribly depressing to read without the humor. The narration doesn't joke about the more dangerous situations, but it lightens the mood in a completely apropriate way to what is going on in the book at any given time. Once again, it is an amazing book (series).
Dr. Thanatos
18. Readforfun
I am a high school English teacher. One of my favorite units deals with Greek Mythology. I love the Percy Jackson series. They are fast paced, filled with humor, and teach tons of Greek Mythology. I encourage my sophomores and seniors to read them. I want my students to fall in love with reading; once that happens they begin to become stronger readers. Not everything had to be deep, some of it should just flat out be fun. (I also enjoy Harry Potter and Twilight - both authors are great writers!)

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