Heroes of Olympus
Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive
In Brief: Classical gods fathering half-blood children. Young characters maturing as they overcome adversity. Some very mild young-teen romance based on a trusting friendship and shared adversity. Many classical references in a modern setting.
Series: Heroes of Olympus
Published in: 2010
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Following on from the original Percy Jackson series, the gods of antiquity are under threat from the earth goddess Gaia and cause the Greek Demigods to throw in their lot with their Roman counterparts whose existence had been hidden from them. A leader from each Camp is stripped of his memory and guided to the other Camp to form new friendships and to make his mark as a leader. Jason Grace, Praetor of the Roman Camp Jupiter, is The Lost Hero on a quest from the Greek Camp Half-Blood with Piper and Leo. Percy Jackson from the Greek Camp Half-Blood becomes The Son of Neptune for a quest with Romans Hazel and Frank. They eventually join forces and travel to Europe where Annabeth must follow The Mark of Athena and guide them on a quest to prevent Gaia from defeating the Olympian gods forever.
(NB At the time of writing only three of the projected five books in this series have been published. I’ll update this review in the light of the later books but if you are reading this after The House of Hades or the yet untitled fifth book have been released, there may be material in those which is not reflected in these notes.)
I have to admit it: I like both Percy Jackson series. They’re not without their problems, but I keep coming back to them for the sake of the characters and the sheer variety of classical legends imaginatively and inventively brought back to life. This review focuses on the later Heroes of Olympus series but many of the same points could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the earlier one.
Since I’m going to be mostly positive, let’s look first at the issues in the series which might cause concern.
First, the series' dual premises: that the classical gods of antiquity are alive and kicking and influencing civilisation in a modern-day Olympus; and that, over the centuries, they've slept around and left so-called half-blood demigods all over the place who inherit some of their gifts and have to train together to become the heroes of today. The stories are all about the last part: heroes training and going on quests. But the rest of it's definitely there. It's mostly played lightweight with demigod name-dropping throughout in the style of the “Men in Black” films. But if you squint a bit, it's not a pretty background: every one of the young heroes is the product of a false relationship between a human and a god of antiquity who doesn’t stay around very long.
Of course the circumstances of their birth aren’t the fault of the young demigods and they make the best of the situation they’re in. In fact their own desire for family normality is reflected in the Greek youngsters’ reaction to the Roman Camp Jupiter. While Camp Half-Blood is mostly a holiday affair for young campers, New Rome has generations of Romans living there, grandparents and children with shops and streets. Both Annabeth and Percy yearn for their chance to settle down to a peaceful existence together. But it’s a sad fact that the absent parent (usually a father) motif of the series offers no bright spot to contrast with the shadows of modern-day family patterns.
Second, it is what it is: a fantasy action adventure for young people. Rather like some of the classical myths they’re related to, the story plots tend towards the episodic. Apart from some bookend chapters, each story is based around a Quest which sees our point-of-view demigods bounce between one location and another, each with its set of classical characters. There’s some overarching story about Gaia plotting to overthrow Olympus, but it doesn’t matter too much to the reader. In the way of classical myths, the enemy characters are often comically stupid and fall more or less easily to the wit of the heroes. And dreams and casual prophecies can play an over-large part both in moving the plot along and in creating tension with news from afar. If it were just about this plot and those mythological beings, the series would be simply a lightweight attempt to bring classical legends to a modern-day setting.
But what makes it all work are the young demigods who are likeable and engaging. They're not the most substantial characters you're ever going to meet and for the most part their motivations are fairly straightforward, even if each one has more or less of a secret. But they're at the heart of the stories' success and they're the hooks on which the loose plot and the classical cameos are hung.
The book cover gives 9+ as the audience. I would have said that some of the characters’ thought-processes and motivations are a little beyond that age-group, but the vocabulary and style could be followed easily by proficient pre-teen readers. And there's nothing which is untoward as long as you don't object to the main ideas. There’s credible danger, but it never gets too harrowing. You know and they know that their friends won’t let them down and will be dashing to the rescue with inventive and daring solutions. There’s bounce and wit in the dialogue and in the relationships between the characters which serves to lighten the atmosphere without ever quite becoming tedious. The author makes it easy by having different chapters told through the eyes of different characters which gives a spread of perceptions and allows for some background setups to be explained.
There's lightweight romance between most of the young characters, but no suggestion of smut. To help things along Coach Hedge (a Satyr) appoints himself chaperon. Granted, he’s comic relief, but the others implicitly accept his right to exercise that responsibility. Bear in mind also that characters in these stories are mostly more mature and grounded than their counterparts in the Real World (and certainly than those who feature in shallow TV dramas). They’ve been through every kind of adversity, individually and as a group and you’d expect them to have better judgement than most people their age.
Percy (who’s about 16 in this story) has been missing his girlfriend Annabeth and he fends off the friendly advances of Reyna, the Roman Praetor. Jason and Piper (both around 15), after an early mix-up with false memories of each other, do become a couple of sorts. She’s a daughter of Aphrodite which would give her an edge but she’s the antithesis of the airhead Beauty Queen and keeps it sane. Percy and Annabeth, when they’re reunited, reminisce over their first journeys together aged 12 and, now 16 going on 17, look ahead seriously to a future together.
My favourite couple, though, is Hazel (about 13) and Frank (about 15) who, already friends at Camp, move towards an affectionate relationship throughout the course of the Quest. Things are complicated because Hazel is actually from the 1950s and is unused to the modern world and its brashness. Frank, although a son of the War God, is uncharacteristically sweet and respectful, and he’s drawn to Hazel’s old-fashioned s innocence. But what gives their relationship depth is that it’s based on, or cemented by, the confidence they give one another when they exchange their respective secrets. This isn’t just a summer romance based on nothing but reasonable good looks and having a fun time together. (And the fact that there was no-one else to choose from anyway). Theirs is a credible friendship based on mutual trust which might or might not blossom into something longer lasting.
In general there's a mostly unspoken respect for women in two different senses. The female characters are just as capable as the males: they take the lead, they devise solutions, they enter battle. At the same time there's sense of delicacy and modesty when needed, concepts which barely exist in young lit for the most part. Leo, putting his head round Piper's door at night, covers his eyes with his hand out of respect for her. Likewise, he notes that Hazel always wears an overshirt for plot reasons, in fact and assumes it's out of modesty. When Hazel is with the boys in Alaska, she moves behind a screen to wash and change. Percy feels it's right to walk his girlfriend to the start of her quest as if he were following his mothers advice to walk her to the door after a date. And so on. It's not overboard and it's all about respect.
Another contrast with common character types elsewhere is the maturity and preparedness of our heroes. When they’re in a fight (and they often are) they don’t simply rely on their divinely-gifted superpowers. Certainly, Percy can control water, Jason can call down lightning, Frank can change shape, and so on. But they’re also calling on their training. Percy and Jason are expert fighters in their own right. And tacticians as well. And, with the exception of Leo and Piper, the others are all competent in combat. Of course they have natural (and supernaturnatural) gifts to draw on. But they’ve trained and practised at their respective camps for this very situation and you feel that they’ve earned their victory, not had it handed to them on a plate. It would be nice to see more actual instances of the hard work they've put in, but it does at least get a mention. Ironically, this series of all series can legitimately produce a Deus ex Machina moment, but it doesn’t do it too often. (In this story arc, with the Gods withdrawn, barely at all). Again, you feel that the young heroes have earned the victories they achieve. And they're not above offering a sacrifice in thanksgiving.
Percy, the key figure in the original series, has matured into a leader who uses his wits and overcomes weakness while remaining self-aware and even becoming introspective. There are moments of conflict between him and his Roman counterpart, Jason. But they’re both big enough to shelve their differences for the sake of the Quest. The others also have their clashes of personality but, again, are ready to overcome themselves. In one scene, Frank’s grandmother (an elderly and autocratic Chinese Canadian) is trying to tease out of him an awareness of his family gift: the ability to change shape and become any animal. In a comment which might just be an ironic sideswipe at the self-esteem trope familiar from more shallow stories, she points out that his mother’s hint “You can be anything you want to be” wasn’t just an empty boost to his self-esteem, but a literal description of his power. But Frank’s not just a supernatural shape-changer; he’s a practised archer and a solid tactician in his own right.
The supporting characters do their stuff. Reyna, the Roman Praetor, is a more solid character than her paranoid sidekick Octavian who reads the entrails of teddy bears. She’s got to shoulder the weight of the Roman Camp while Jason Grace is missing. It’s not surprising that she recognises Percy’s worth when he shows up and it’s too her credit that she backs away when she sees how things lie between him and Annabeth. Also noteworthy is her personal integrity when her Camp is apparently attacked by the Greeks just after she and Annabeth have exchanged confidences. Her sister Hylla, queen of the Amazons, makes her mark. Even Hazel's horse, Arion, has a personality, channelled through Percy's ability to communicate with horses.
There are fun scenes and mayhem at the Amazon headquarters (which is both the flagship office of the internet company and the base for the female warriors), at a department store ruled over by a Witch, in a Sea Life centre, in a garage run by Cyclops, and elsewhere. There’s action fraught with danger when the heroes have to work with each other. There’s the usual cast of monsters to outwit, allies to acquire, Gods who appear briefly to give cryptic advice, and dream warnings to keep the tension high. Not unlike the Greek legends, in fact.
My bottom line is that this manages to be a series which is attractive to young readers (and it is enormously popular) while managing to avoid anything undesirable, given that you accept its premise of classical gods running civilisation and having cast-off children. There is humour, loyalty, friendship, even very close friendship, and trust. There’s every kind of classical reference rendered accessible and interesting coupled with action, danger, perseverance and a determination to do the right thing.
Monday 8th July 2013