Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Book Review: Percy Jackson holds up to Potter

We’ve been listening to the Percy Jackson series in the car. It is a series of kids books that relies heavily on Greek mythology. The Greek pantheon is real and Mt. Olympus is now on the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. The series is about a young man who never seems to quite fit in. He has a wonderful mom, but doesn’t know his father. It turns out that his father is a major deity. The sons of the denizens of Olympus are heroes who, like the figures of myth, have great capabilities and have adventures on behalf of the gods.

It would be easy enough to deride it as a Harry Potter knock-off. Obviously there are innumerable parallels to the world of Harry Potter – even down to the main characters. Young heroes train at a special camp, hidden from the world of mortals. In fact, much of the world of gods and heroes is hidden from mortals. The writing in Percy Jackson is not as strong – although some of that may be due to the fact that it is narrated in the first person by the main character. A teenage boy describing the world in rich, complex and neutral tones would be unlikely.

But while Percy Jackson suffers in direct comparison, it definitely has a charm (it can also be funny – although sometimes it tries to hard.) I keep recalling a literary critic comparing Dickens to one of his leading rivals. The rival could create planets, but Dickens created whole universes. But sometimes those mere planets were awfully compelling. By building upon an established mythology, the Percy Jackson series seems more limited then the universe of Potterdom. After all, Rowling’s work included a number of terms that have joined our vocabulary (although the only one springing to mind is “muggles.”) There were wonderful evocative names for people and things in Rowling's universe.

But the magic world was only partially connected to ours. In Percy Jackson the affairs of the Olympians are inextricably linked to those of mortals. There is a sense of something palpable at stake. Choosing to build on well-established archetypes helps teach children about them (plus it gives them at least a sense of Greek mythology). The Dumbledore-esque teacher of heroes (who – and I like this – is not nearly as formidable as Dumbledore) explains that Olympus dwells wherever the heart of western civilization dwells – and to find it, look at the architecture. Something at stake indeed!

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