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.