It’s been years since I first read the first quintet of Percy Jackson books. (I still haven’t read the second.) I’ve been meaning to reread them for ages, though, and since I had a long weekend off work with no actual plans for the first time in… forever last weekend, I decided it was the perfect time to get cozy with a book or five.
If you’re not familiar with the plot of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, it follows the titular Percy on a variety of mythology-based adventures with his fellow demigods—children who are half human and half Greek deity. All these kids train with gods, centaurs, and monsters at their home base, Camp Half-Blood, in preparation for receiving an important quest. Percy and his friends Annabeth and Grover battle different monsters and challenges in each book, but their major goal is to stop the Titan Kronos, the sinister father of many of the gods of Olympus, from destroying Mount Olympus and all of civilization in one fell swoop.
While the series does have a male protagonist, it certainly doesn’t do poorly by its ladies. There are plenty of female characters with important roles in the books as well as believable character arcs and flaws, on both the good side and the villain side. Annabeth, of course, comes to mind first; she’s Percy’s best friend (and later, his girlfriend) so she gets the most pagetime, as it were. She’s a brilliant architect and a great fighter, but she’s insecure about her human family and terrified of spiders. She’s loyal to a fault to her friends, even the ones who betray or leave her, and she worries that her tragic flaw as a hero is pride—she always believes that she has the right answer or the best way, and sometimes it bites her in the ass. On the other side of this is Clarisse, a daughter of Ares with a huge chip on her shoulder. Although she could have easily been made a laughingstock character because of her bullyish nature and husky, muscular build, she is rounded out as a character and given a sympathetic arc of personal development in her relationship with her father and the other half-bloods.
One of the things that I forgot about these books from the first read was that they’re super goofy. Almost all of the Greek villains have set themselves up in the real world under some tremendously punny pseudonyms—Medusa runs a statuary emporium under the name Aunty Em, and every time you cut off a hydra’s head, another generic franchise restaurant opens up somewhere. While they do deal with pretty serious subject matter—parental abandonment, betrayal, PTSD, and war, among other things—both Percy’s outlook on the world and the world itself provide a healthy dose of levity.
The series does an interesting thing with both dyslexia and ADHD by, well, diagnosing all the demigods with them, across the board. The dyslexia is apparently because their brains are hardwired to read Ancient Greek, not English, and the ADHD may get them in trouble in school but can be a lifesaver on the battlefield. On one hand, this is sort of cool because making these disabilities a side effect of demideity might help real-world neuroatypical children look at them in a different light. Even the children of Athena, the brightest demigods at the camp, still struggle with reading and sitting still, but it doesn’t make them any less intelligent. However, making these conditions into something mystical and mysterious is also kind of othering to children who have them. It’s like having a series where the only nonbinary characters are aliens—it presumes that there’s something inhuman about the way they are.
I’ve heard that the second set of books featuring Percy revealed one of the demigods to be gay (no spoilers, please—I’m hoping to read them this week!), but there is no such representation in the original quintet. On one hand, this is semi-forgivable because Percy, as our POV character, doesn’t spend his time around a particularly huge cast of characters; for the most part, he hangs out with his close friends and/or questmates. However, it wouldn’t have been hard for him to say something about “so-and-so and her girlfriend” or the like when narrating his time at Camp Half-Blood, and there’s no reason that the gods and goddesses themselves couldn’t have had same-gender lovers. At one point, we learn that children of Athena are “brain children” like her, as she’s sworn herself to maidenhood; if her children don’t even need an egg and sperm to be created, what’s stopping her from having kids with another woman? Why aren’t there more kids with two moms or two dads at Camp Half-Blood?
All this aside, the Percy Jackson books came to me when I was looking desperately for something to fill the void of Harry Potter. They were a fun fantasy series in a similar “prophecied hero saves the world” vein, but not so similar that they felt like a cheap copy. And while I never felt super attached to any one character (except maybe poor precious Nico di Angelo, the troubled cinnamon roll demigod son of Hades, whom I constantly wanted to shelter from bad things), I was still invested in all of them succeeding. Plus, I was raised in a house where the classic Clash of the Titans was required watching—it’s no surprise I grew up to like cheesy stories about Greek heroes named Perseus. It’s just too bad there was never a film adaptation of this series, isn’t it?
All in all, though, this is definitely an enjoyable series to read and reread, and while you don’t have to know anything about Greek mythology to like it, having a little background knowledge doesn’t hurt. At the least, it helps you figure out the foreshadowing ahead of time. And if you do read them and like them, Rick Riordan has a similar series (a trilogy) with Egyptian gods out as well, and a Norse-based one coming in the fall of this year.
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