An adolescent superhero who suffers from attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, schoolteachers who suddenly turn into Furies, a summer camp for half-bloods (children of gods and mortals) separated into teams torn apart by ancient quarrels who compete for Quidditch-Cup-esque prizes, a huge movie deal, worldwide publicity – yes, we’re definitely talking about another ‘next Harry Potter’ children’s fantasy series here.
The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is written by Rick Riordan, who also writes detective novels starring tough-guy San Antonio gumshoe Tres Navarre. The series opener, The Lightning Thief, which was picked up by Miramax studios after a fierce bidding war, is his first children’s book, created out of bedtime stories he told his children and textbooks at work (he used to teach history and myth in schools before the Percy Jackson advance changed his life).
Percy Jackson doesn’t know who his father is, but he keeps getting into trouble and has changed schools six times in six years, mostly because monsters out of Greek myth keep bothering him. When the story opens, his tenure at the Yancy Academy is brutally interrupted by an unfortunate event, explained in the first chapter, the brilliantly titled ‘I accidentally vaporize my pre-algebra teacher.’ He has to leave school again soon, and heads off with his mother to a mysterious summer camp where his questions might be answered.
And what a summer camp it is; presided over by Chiron the centaur and Dionysus, god of wine, it’s a training school for godlings, neatly divided into cabins dedicated to their divine parents. They don’t know where to put Percy (Perseus) initially, because they don’t know who his father is, but soon, in the middle of swordfights, monster attacks and bully-bashing sessions in toilets, Percy discovers his father’s identity (though it’s fairly clear from the start, given his affinity towards water) and is handed his Quest: Zeus’ lightning bolt has been stolen, and this could spark off a war between Zeus and Poseidon. Percy suspects Hades, lord of the underworld, is the thief, and so has to set out to recover the lightning bolt and avert disaster. Cue motley crew of sidekicks and friends: Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena, goddess of wisdom and ancient rival of Poseidon, whose expressed desire to beat Percy up now and then clearly indicates romance in upcoming episodes, and Grover, a satyr struggling to make the grade, who dreams of setting off to find Pan. They go off on their quest, meeting a ghastly array of monsters on the way in a cross-country caper vaguely reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. There are a few good twists in the tail; a betrayal, a confrontation and an explanation – all classic fantasy staples, but in a world where bookstores are full of 12-year-old heroes discovering themselves, Riordan does a commendable job giving us a character that inspires affection and treading a much-trodden path with confidence and style. And some of his creations are right up there in the young-adult fiction all-star pantheon: Mount Olympus is accessed through a secret elevator in the Empire state building, and the path to the underworld leads through an LA recording studio. The only thing that’s clearly wrong about this book is its claim that America is the centre of western civilization.
The Lightning Thief is a fun, fast and furious read; it’s cleverly plotted, the world is convincing and self-sustaining, the updated mythology and bestiary are almost flawless, and the dialogue and action sequences should have children streaming through the pages. As a children’s fantasy series, it’s a notch below the early Potter books, Bartimaeus and Artemis Fowl, but several steps ahead of the over-hyped Inheritance series. This could be the beginning of yet another publishing phenomenon.