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Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

Style: Average

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Fairly Positive

In Brief: Based on the idea that the Greek gods are real and take root wherever civilisation is strongest, at present in the USA. Single-parent families as a commonplace. Rites-of-passage style story involving finding inner strengths and powers, overcoming magical and monstrous adversaries, and knowing when to trust people.

Cover of Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

Author: Rick Riordan

Series: Percy Jackson

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 2006

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Contemporary

Setting: America

Genres:  AdventureFantasyFriendshipMythical


Characters:

  • Percy (Perseus) Jackson is a half-blood, the otherwise ordinary son of Poseidon the sea god and his own human mother. He has to discover his own abilities and overcome his dislike of his unwanted friend and half-brother Tyson.
  • Tyson is also a son of Poseidon although of a different race. Younger than Percy and sometimes embarrassing to him, he is nonetheless immensely strong and very affectionate.
  • Annabeth is the daughter of Athena and a human father. Confident and forceful, she nonetheless values Percy's friendship.
  • Clarisse is the feisty daughter of Ares, God of War. She feels the need to prove herself to her father and to the other half-bloods.

Synopsis:

Percy Jackson finds himself on a quest to rescue his satyr friend Grover, at the same time finding the Golden Fleece which alone can save the poisoned tree that protects Camp Half-Blood. He's helped by Annabeth and Tyson and, grudgingly, by Clarisse. Together they travel through the Sea of Monsters to the island where Grover is held captive by the cyclops Polyphemus, who wants to marry him (in a case of mistaken identity). Behind this quest, they discover a darker plot involving the Titan Kronos and Luke, one time friend of Annabeth and son of the god Hermes.

Notes:

I don't know if you feel the same way I do whenever I read one of those Greek Legends where Hermes or Zeus appeared to some maiden in the form of a swan or a bull or whatever... and nine months later a child is born? My first reaction is: what was she thinking of? Of course, the immortal in question sometimes appears as a personable young man or woman which makes the thing more understandable. Rick Riordan has taken this idea – Olympians having children by humans – and mixed it with the contemporary experience of single parents and attention-impaired schoolkids, and produced Percy Jackson and the other half-bloods.

Now, this review could go in either direction at this point. On the one hand, you have the identification of Western Civilisation with Greek gods; you have the driving force behind most of the characters being the fact that one parent is most decidedly absent; and you have a middling boy-makes-good story. On the other hand, you see a set of youngsters making the best of the hand they've been dealt; you see a whole raft of the figures of classical legends portrayed in amusing and engaging ways; and you see a young lad with nothing much to say stand up for himself and his friends in spite of the considerable risks.

Well, I'm going to go down the positive line in this review, but clearly if you find any of the issues I've just described especially sensitive or unwanted then this won't be the book for you or for your children. I think, on balance, that the book's outlook is positive although hardly profound.

The choice of America as the centre of civilisation (the modern-day counterpart to Ancient Greece) may raise an eyebrow or two, but the locations chosen are decidedly tongue-in-cheek: Mount Olympus, for example, is on top of the Empire State Building while Hades is under Los Angeles. The gods of antiquity continue to visit unsuspecting young women (and men) with the result that a number of children are born who are half-bloods. During the holidays, these children get together at Camp Half-Blood, overseen by Dionysus and tutored by Chiron the centaur. Although in principle none of the “big three” gods — Zeus, Hades & Poseidon — were to have fathered any more children, Percy's father was in fact Poseidon the Sea God which gives him a unique place in prophecy and a special affinity with water and aquatic creatures and craft.

At the Camp, it's natural and encouraged both to pray to your parent god (trying to avoid the phrase god-parent here) and to offer him or her sacrifice, at least to the extent of returning a part of your meal to the fire in offering. This concept of prayer to the gods and the sacrifice needed are present elsewhere in the story. You can pay for a taxi-ride driven by the Fates, for example, or set up a sort of celestial video conference by tossing a gold drachma into a spray of water and praying to the goddess Iris. These kind of devices are lightweight enough and the latter is a typical fantasy plot-device, providing an amusing “classical” counterpart to a modern concept. But there is a pervading idea that “your” god is someone to whom you can and should pray and offer sacrifice. That a god is someone who is in fact taking a keen interest in you, but who is doing so from afar to avoid other complications. Of course there are aspects of this which hardly chime with, say, the Christian ideal, but there are many worse ideas around.

From a slightly different angle, the range of classical references is really quite broad. We either meet or hear about numerous Greek gods and goddesses, plus Tantalus, Chiron, satyrs and naiads, Polyphemus, the Fates, Heracles, the Stymphalian birds, the Hydra, Circe and her pigs, Odysseus, Jason, Cadmus & Europa, the Golden Fleece, Scylla & Charybdis, the Sirens, the Harpies, and more. Even Blackbeard the pirate has a look-in! Some of the characters get a modern makeover (Circe runs a health spa, turning men into guinea-pigs while Hermes runs a delivery service with a mobile phone). Others are straight out of legend. Classical legends continue to have a part to play in our culture and anything which brings them closer to youngsters reading is worth looking at.

The growing-up aspects of the story, while hardly inspired, are nonetheless positive stuff. Percy's Mum does her best for him, taking any job she can to get the money for the schools he needs and cooking special food to cheer him up. Percy himself, saddled with an unwieldy friend who brings more bullying, nonetheless stands up for him and overcomes his own distaste in favour of loyalty. Percy & Annabeth set off quite unselfishly to rescue Grover and to retrieve the Golden Fleece (fortuitously from the same place) and unselfishly forgo the glory it could bring to help a fellow camper who needs the recognition more. None of it will surprise anyone, but wrapped as it is in the refreshingly imaginative world of modern-day gods, it certainly engages.

There is a fair amount of violent action. The campers train in swordplay and archery (especially those from Ares' cabin) and the characters have to defend themselves using brain and brawn on numerous occasions. But Percy's sword, made of Celestial Bronze but normally concealed as a ballpoint pen, will only harm immortals. When a monster is damaged enough, it explodes conveniently into dust saving, as Percy points out, a lot of clearing up by the heroes. Except for a proposed duel to the death towards the end (“You tried the diplomatic approach, then?”) there is a video-game simplicity to the action.

A small note which makes me wonder if the author had someone in mind is the subtext that the young demigods for all their powers are usually dyslexic and have attention problems. The explanation is that since their natural language is Ancient Greek (Percy's sword is called Anaklusmos - Riptide) they're not at home in English. And since their natural milieu involves battle armour and legendary monsters, they're not easily going to sit still in front of a blackboard. Put positively, this is a way of saying to children who find academic work difficult: maybe there's a hero inside you. Put negatively, it reinforces a restless and lazy child's natural desire to get out of the classroom and into the playground. You may take your pick.

In conclusion, this is a book whose outlook is positive, which could spark a real interest in the broader cultural background of Greek legends, and which values virtues. its very premise is casually intimate relationships between gods and humans followed by absentee parents.

Themes:

  • Western Civilization – is it really centred in America?
  • The classical legends

Chugging towards us down the river was the strangest ship I'd ever seen. It rode low in the water like a submarine, its deck plated with iron. In the middle was a trapezoid-shaped casemate with slats on each end for cannons. A flag waved from the top – a wild boar and spear on a blood-red field. Lining the deck were zombies in grey uniforms – dead soldiers with shimmering faces that only partially covered their skulls, like the ghouls I'd seen in the Underworld guarding Hades's palace.

The ship was an ironclad. A Civil War battle cruiser. I could just make out the name along the prow in moss-covered letters: CSS Birmingham.

And standing next to the smoking cannon that had almost killed us, wearing full Greek battle armour, was Clarisse.

Monday 18th June 2007