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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

The Lightning Thief - Rick Riordan I read this solely because my nine-year-old boy pestered me to read it for about a month. I've said this before in reviews for middle grade novels, but I'm not sure my reviewing them makes any sense. Am I reviewing for other parents? Then yes, this is fine, and you don't have to worry about inappropriate fare for the kiddie set, unless you are so hardline religious that the concept of a cosmos littered with Greek gods upsets your worldview. (And, as a pretty serious materialist, I bridled at times about hokum explanations for the Way the World Works – at one point, Percy says baldly that it's not the tilt of the Earth on its axis that creates the seasons, but Demeter and her grief for Persephone's loss six months of the year. But wait, I thought, how do you explain the fact that the hemispheres have flipped seasons? She's sad and happy at the same time? But whatever – fiction is fiction, and I don't really need to get into a big thing about it.) Am I reviewing for the kiddies? Nope. My son already wrote a review under his secret account, and pretty much summed this up for the kiddie set. High five stars; this rules; etc. So, I guess I'm just talking about stuff that a parent might think having read her son's most favoritist books.

It's fine. I liked it, but it's not worthy of either glowing praise or vicious attacks. I thought a lot about Harry Potter as I read. There's a lot of concordances – the main character who is the fulfillment of prophesies, with a Dursley-like step-father, and a male and female side-kick. I think I liked Percy a little better than Potter – he's more of a screw-up, and he had shades of middle grade Holden Caulfield, what with all of the schools he'd been kicked out of. The world itself if much less interesting than Potter's, less synthesized and seductive, but it does have the advantage of being pretty literal about Greek mythology, so it has a didactic purpose if you're into that sort of thing as a parent. The boy and his dork friends play Greek gods all the time mostly because of this series, and he's always sending me to the wikis to answer niggling questions – the one tonight: who was it who cursed Echo? I still haven't looked that up.

Percy is the son of an absent father (more on parental absenteeism later) who, because of a variety of character traits – ADHD, dyslexia, general cussedness – has been shuttled from school to school for most of his short 12 years. Trouble finds him, and the story starts with his warning that if you find this sort of paranormal trouble sexy, if you think it's TEH AWESOME that he's beset by monsters and stuff, then you're in the wrong story. Which is funny, because of course that's why you (you being the kiddies) is reading this sort of thing. But the DANGER DANGER warning is a convention of fantastic fiction, and this book does a really excellent job of walking you through the conventions. As an adult reader, I eye-rolled a fair amount over the fore-shadowing by two-by-four that went on. The myth would be relayed in a straightforward infodump, and then they would find themselves in a similar situation, and then it would take them a paaaainfully long time to sort it out. But you have to learn to read somewhere, and that somewhere is here, with the signposts lit up with neon and spinning sparklers.

I don't think this is a spoiler – even though we “learn” this nearly a third of the way in, two-by-fours at the ready – but Percy is the son of Poseidon. He's gotten himself to a summer camp for the by-blows of Greek gods. This read a little weird to me, just because all of these bastard children, though his term is never used are just hanging out, in their Houses Lodges, a bunch of half-siblings united by parental abandonment. Which, can we talk about this for a minute? I find this all over children's fiction, for all ages, from the kiddie stuff on up to young adult. Children in fiction have at most one parent, and often fewer. Death, depression, abuse, divorce, illness, whatever the reason, kids don't have parents in fiction. I'm way to lazy to google statistics, so I'm just going to guess this is pretty common for kids. However, my own son isn't dealing with split household or a single-or-no-parent household, so why is this attractive to him? Is it just because it's a way of dealing with the serious fear for most children of parental loss – the pall of the new concept of death – the danger of mortality in all its forms? Or is it just that it's nice to imagine the dad who never once gave a solitary visible crap about his kid(s) was ridiculously powerful and had a super good reason for how bad a dad he was?

I've talked about this before, so I shouldn't get into wheel-spinning or repetition. I thought Percy dealt with this whole crisis of masculinity/parenting/whatever pretty well, as far as that goes. I'm ignoring most of the stuff that happened with the step-dad, because that hurt me a little, but I liked how Percy – spoiler a little – chose to return and live with his mother in the real world, even though you know he'll have to return to fantastic in later outings. I think one of the very serious failures of Harry Potter as a whole is that is that it takes the whole Jung/Campbell hero quest – the one where the hero goes into the otherworld, learns some valuable lessons about life and the world and everything, and then returns to real life with that knowledge – is that Harry never returns to real life. Sure, he goes to the Dursley's every summer under magical duress, but real life is muggle boring, and the magical world obviously better. I find that...disquieting, in the end. It's not that I want to be a dream-crusher, but it might be cooler to learn how to live in the real world through the fantastic, instead of making that escape permanent for ever and ever amen. The demigod summer camp in Percy's world is understood to be both safe and static – as Percy says, real world is where the monsters are – and that he chooses the real monsters over the fantastic illusory safety is really something.

And just because I suspect I have a fight on my hands ragging on Potter a little, I'll just say I see how it's all so bad and so serious in the Potterverse at the very end there, how everyone is going to die and have their souls sucked through their noses and everything, but, c'mon. This isn't real danger. This isn't the danger presented by the Dursleys, whose racism, classism, cruelty and all around sh!tty parenting is a much greater danger for vulnerable kids in this world we inhabit. Harry ages out of the foster system with a whole bunch of magical friends to protect him, but he's in the serious minority. That he never comes back...well, he never comes back. Percy does. As I said before, I think the Potterverse is more interesting, just as a world, more thought out and, well, cooler. But I kinda get why Percy is more interesting to the boy, at the moment, even though semi-objectively, the Potter stories are better novels. I know how to read a novel at my advanced age, but my boy doesn't, and this gives him a lesson in the form. That's great. I'm glad Percy is teaching him the ropes.