Sunday, October 29, 2006

Book Review: Percy Jackson and The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, is the second book in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. After reading Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, I have been eagerly awaiting this sequel and I should say the second book doesn't disappoint — it is every bit as whacky and as exciting and as readable as the first one.

To those of you who are unaware, here's a quick update on the basic premise of this series: We all know (or have heard) of the mythological gods that dwelled on mount Olympus. These Grecian gods, like the Hindu devas that we are probably more familiar with, too dabbled a lot in the affairs of the mortals. And like the Hindu devas, the Olympian gods were known for consorting with any human (or animal, or spirit) that caught their fancy. Usually, as a result of these divine dalliances, there were numerous off-springs, "demi-gods" roaming the earth in the ancient days.

Well, the Greek gods of old are still around (they are immortal after all), moving as the center of western civilization shifts with time. Today, Zeus lives atop the Empire State Building. The dominion of Hades is under the present day Los Angeles. Poseidon still rules the sea. And like in the hey days of Greek civilization, the Olympian gods continue to sire offspring who roam the earth as demi-gods often stirring trouble when they clash with each other (The second world war was a result of the offspring of two gods coming to blows). Because of their divine DNA, these kids are dyslexic, have ADHD (Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder), but speak and understand Latin fluently and naturally have some sort of divine powers, the nature of which is determined by the god who sired them. These half-bloods assemble (usually during school vacations) in a camp in New York called Half-Blood Hill. The Centaur Chiron (those who are familiar with the Greek myths will remember he trained the mighty Hercules), is the activities director of the camp. Dionysus, the god of wine, is the camp director, banished to this "punishment posting" for showing undue interest in a wood nymph. The camp is sort of a "safe-place" for these demi-gods. Within the magical boundaries of the camp they are protected from mythical monsters (Minotaurs, etc) and learn and train as demi-gods should be. (Think of it as this series’ equivalent of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter series.)

After the destruction wrought by the Second World War, the big three of the Olympian pantheon — Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades — swear an oath on the river Styx that they would not beget any more children. Only Hades has kept his promise. Percy (Perseus) Jackson is Poseidon's son.

Back to the book.

The book starts of with Percy Jackson's last day in a new progressive school, Meriweather College Prep. But for the bullies, the school has not been too bad. At least no monsters have attempted to kill him. Percy hopes that the last day goes without an incident and he can make his way safely back to Half-Blood Hill without being expelled (as he was from all his earlier schools) from this school. But of course something has to go wrong.

The night before, Percy has had a very disturbing dream about his friend, Grover the satyr. Grover, who is on a quest to find the god Pan, seems to be in danger. And Percy finds himself in the thick of trouble when strange things start happening on the last day at the school. A dodge ball game turns into a battle when a group of giant cannibals called Laistrygonians infiltrate the opposite team and attack Percy and his new friend Tyson. Tyson is a huge brute of a teenager who happens to be homeless and on a charity scholarship at Meriweather College Prep. Despite his size, Tyson is very sensitive and breaks down into convulsive sobbing when teased and bullied. However in the fight with the Laistrygonians, Tyson displays some unusual abilities. Despite Tyson's heroics, he and Percy seem destined to be eaten by the cannibals when they are rescued by Annabeth who is the daughter of Athena and a friend of Percy's from Half-Blood Hill.

Percy and Tyson accompany Annabeth to Camp Half-Blood only to find that it too is under attack. The protective barrier around the camp has weakened considerably because of the poisoning of the pine tree of Thalia. Thalia, the daughter of Zeus, who like Percy was a half blood, had been changed into a tree some years ago to protect the other inmates of the camp from danger. Thalia, all through these years, has been a magical guardian of the Camp Half-Blood. But an unknown poison is now eating into her and killing her. Chiron is made the scapegoat and fired. Tantalus (who in Greek mythology steals Ambrosia and is hence punished the gods to be tempted with food and water but never be satisfied) takes over as Camp Half-Blood's activities director. Tantalus takes an immediate dislike to Percy (and his friends Annabeth and Tyson) and does his best to torment him. He pays no heed to Percy's increasingly nightmarish dreams about his satyr friend Grover. Percy's nightmares show Grover to be imprisoned by the cyclops Polyphemus on an island in the Sea of Monsters (familiarly known as the Bermuda Triangle). It is also revealed that the legendary Golden Fleece is on the same island and only the magical healing properties of the Golden Fleece can save Thalia and in turn Camp Half-Blood. Tantalus however gleefully assigns the quest for finding and bringing the Golden Fleece to Clarisse, daughter of the war god Ares. But with the help of the god Hermes (who has his own ulterior motives) Percy along with Annabeth and Tyson also sets off on a quest to rescue Grover and find the Golden Fleece. Along the way Percy and his friends (like on any quest of the old) contend not only with Clarisse, but also with an assortment of monsters, run into the sorceress Circe, encounter the Sirens, and fight with Luke (another half-blood, a traitor, and Percy's sworn enemy). They also have to deal with the machinations of the gods. And along the way Percy learns quite a few secrets, especially a prophecy about himself which threatens the very existence of the Olympian gods and their creations. The prophecy along with the reappearance of a pivotal, powerful character (that overturns all the calculations of the gods about the prophecy) make a great finish for the book and set the platform for a tantalizing third book.

Like The Lightning Thief, Sea of Monsters is packed with compelling drama and hilarious adventures. And if you are even slightly familiar with Greek mythology you'll have a blast reading Rick Riordan's re-imagining of the Greek myths and the way he has updated the gods and their stories to fit them into the modern world and the world of Percy Jackson.

Sample this description of Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty) given in the "Chiron's Guide to the Who's Who in Greek Mythology" appended at the end of the book:
Distinguishing Features:
She's really, really pretty.

Now:
She's more beautiful than Angelina Jolie.

Then:
She's more beautiful than Helen of Troy.
Here's how Riordan describes the Harpies who eat up the kids who break curfew at Camp Half-Blood:
“. . . plump little hags with pinched faces and talons and feathery wings too small for their bodies. They reminded me of miniature cafeteria ladies who'd been crossbred with dodo birds.”
Rick Riordan has a keen sense of comedy. Chapter three, "We Hail the Taxi of Eternal Torment" describes the "Chariot of Damnation" driven by three sisters: Tempest, Anger, and Wasp, who between the three of them share one eye and a tooth. Its one of the most hilarious episodes in the book. The ride in the "Chariot of Damnation" is very reminiscent of Harry Potter's ride in the Knight Bus in book three, The Prisoner of Azakaban (actually more reminiscent of the movie than the book), only this is infinitely more funny. Here's an excerpt:
'Wasp!' the third lady said to the driver, 'Give me the girl's coin! I want to bite it.'
'You bit last time, Anger!' said the driver, whose name must've been Wasp. 'It's my turn!'
"Is not!' yelled the one called Anger.
The middle one, Tempest, screamed, 'Red Light!'
'Brake!' yelled Anger.
Instead, Wasp floored the accelerator and rode up on the kerb, screeching around another corner, and knocking over a newspaper box. She left my stomach somewhere back on Broome Street.
'Excuse me,' I said. 'But . . . can you see?'
'No!' screamed Wasp from behind the wheel.
'No!' screamed Tempest from the middle.
'Of course!' screamed Anger by the shotgun window.
I looked at Annabeth. 'They're blind?'
'Not completely.' Annabeth said. 'They have an eye.'
'One eye?'
'Yeah.'
'Each?'
'No. One eye total.'
Like in The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan comes up with some brilliant chapter titles. Apart from "We Hail the Taxi of Eternal Torment" there's also "We Hitch a Ride with Dead Confederates" and "We Meet the Sheep of Doom."

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters is an outstanding book and a fitting and fantastic sequel to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. All the characters have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies depending upon which part of the Greek mythology Riordan has pulled them out from. Luke, who betrays Camp Half-Blood, in the first book, emerges as a perfect antithesis to Percy, a strong and sure villain to the doubtful and flawed hero. Along with Kronos (the king of the Titans and the Voldemort of this series), he is the arch nemesis for Percy. Annabeth lives up to her genes and it is evident that she is indeed the daughter of the goddess of wisdom, Athena. The friendship that she shares with Percy is very deftly and interestingly handled by Riordan. Tyson, one of the new characters in the book, takes much of the readers' sympathy for his simplicity and sweetness. It remains to be seen if he plays any role in the book to come.

Like the first book, the sequel is a rollicking page-turner. Readers would love the fast pace and the excitement of the adventures that befall Percy, Annabeth, and Tyson. There's something dramatic happening on every other page and never does the pace falter. It’s the kind of book you compulsively read in a single sitting over a few hours. I started reading it after lunch and finished the last few pages over tea. The end of the book, as I have mentioned earlier, is a cliffhanger and will ensure that readers make a beeline to the bookshops when the next installment hits the market (Book Three: The Titan's Curse, is scheduled for release on May 1, 2007).

Comparisons with the Harry Potter series are inevitable nowadays for any book that is published in the fantasy and magic genre. And this is especially true of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series because of the similarity between Camp Half-Blood and Hogwarts. Overall, I feel the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series stands up quite well to Harry Potter and in some cases is even better. I like the basic premise that this series and the books are based on: an extension of Greek mythology and the stories narrated in the Odyssey. The premise, because it is so much different from the usual fantasy fare makes the books refreshing and interesting. Also the books are funnier and Percy Jackson is a wittier narrator (the adventures are narrated from the first point-of-view of Percy) than the omniscient narrator in Harry Potter.

Do read this book (and The Lightning Thief, if you haven't already). And keep a sharp lookout for future books to come. In Percy Jackson, the books and the character, there are the makings of a classic in the fantasy genre.

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Rick Riordan's Blog here.
The official Percy Jackson and the Olympians website.

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6 comments:

Aishwarya said...

Ooh..just bought this a week ago. I loved thie first one.

Ang said...

mandy, before anyone else asks...i'm first on the borrow list for Lightning Thief!

vijayendra said...

Read both and loved the stories. If you have seen Disney's Hercules however, you will see parallels. Heck, I even see parallels to Potter.

Looking fiercely forward to the third book. :)

iNFiNiteSaDNeSS said...

Forget Ang, Mandy. first thing you do when you come in tomorrow is to send me this book. The courierwallah comes in at 11 AM.

Anonymous said...

its better than harry potter

Anonymous said...

Umm, I only read the 1st one, but do they ever stop talking like they are football helmet retarded?