June 13, 2012

(Audio)book Review: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

SoldierMan and I like to listen to audiobooks when we’re in the car. We enjoy experiencing a book together and it solves the whole “what music will we listen to” question whenever we’re running around town on the weekends. We finished the whole Harry Potter series a few months ago, so next we decided to try something we thought would be in the same vein: Percy Jackson.

I saw the movie when it was in theaters with my family, and remembered enjoying it. In retrospect, I think it had more to do with the company than the actual movie. Granted, we listened to the audiobook, but it is unabridged, so I think we got a full, accurate impression of the print version. And I’m (somewhat) sorry to say, we’ll be stopping at Book 1.

Here’s the gist: Percy Jackson is a 6th grader who lives in New York City with his loving mother and disgusting step-father. He has bounced from private school to private school thanks to his dyslexia and ADHD, and has few friends. Suddenly he discovers the normal world he is used to is not what it seems: His English teacher morphs into a monster that tries to kill him, another teacher turns out to be a centaur – a half-man, half-horse creature, and his best friend, Grover, isn’t even human, he’s a Satyr, a half-boy, half-goat. Monsters begin popping out of the mot unexpected places, and Grover takes him to Camp Half-blood, filled with the children of the gods, where he learns that his real father is Poseidon, god of the sea. And oh yeah, all those Greek gods and goddesses he studied in school? They’re real, they’re still around, and they’re still causing trouble, with Percy caught in the middle. Percy’s mother is kidnapped by Hades, Zeus has his famous lightning bolt stolen, and only Percy can set things right….but will he find the real lightning thief before the gods bring war to the earth?

See, written like that, it sounds intriguing to me. I generally like stories where common mythology is reimagined, when it’s done well. That’s the key phrase – “done well.” “Percy Jackson” is not.

For starters, I understand this is a book written for children and young adults. I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare or anything, but it’s possible to insult even a child’s intelligence. When you use similes like, “tension was building like carbonation behind a cork,” I have to think, you’re trying too hard to dumb this down. Not to mention, what has carbonation AND a cork? Not children’s beverages. That’s just one example, but in general the quality of writing and description sounded like it was written by a 12-year-old, not by an adult for 12-year-olds. That irritates me. You read old kids’ books like Nancy Drew, Narnia and the Boxcar Children, and sure the stories are simple, but the writing is still quality. We don’t need to sacrifice quality just because they’re “kids’ books.”

The characters are along the same lines. The main ones, Percy, Annabeth, Grover, they’re all nice round characters. But most of the mythical characters, particularly the gods and goddesses, left a lot to be desired. Like I said, I like stories that reimagine classic tales, when they’re done well. “Wicked” was well-written, and even though I found the storyline and characters totally unappealing, I still enjoyed the world that Maguire created (and I read both “Wicked” and “Son of a Witch”) – because it was done well. “Percy Jackson” had a very rich mythology to draw on, and the result was pretty thin. Not to mention, by the way, that Perseus in Greek mythology isn’t Poseidon’s son, he’s Zeus’s son. Seems a weird thing to arbitrarily change.

If you’ve studied the ancient Greek gods at all, you know they aren’t exactly…personable. They’re simply glorifications of basal human characteristics, both good and bad. “Percy Jackson” doesn’t alter from that, and I think that’s a mistake. In the end, you feel no affection or attraction or respect for these beings that supposedly control the world. They’re just a bunch of self-centered jerks who like to screw with humanity whenever they get bored (literally and metaphorically). Why not give the readers at least a couple of gods to root for? Because even their own children at Camp Half-Blood hate the gods, or at least don’t like them very much.

I do like that Percy’s dyslexia and ADHD are revealed to be assets rather than liabilities. I’m all for neurodiversity, and I would love it if my (hypothetical) dyslexic or ADHD child had an example of someone who was able to turn those into strengths. But the way it’s handled is so heavy-handed, it’s not very effective. Same thing with all the preaching about global warming, pollution and how horrible humans treat the earth (in contrast to the gods, who like to “get” one another by, for example, causing fires, floods and famines…because that’s way better, right?) The book is also so filled with pop culture references (the Satyr likes to play Miley Cyrus on his pipes) that it’s easy to see these books getting outdated very quickly. In 10 years, who will care about Miley Cyrus anymore? (Sorry, Miley.)

This is already longer than I wanted, so I won’t go on and on – even though I certainly could. The first book even leaves off on a cliffhanger that sets up the larger story for the whole series (akin to the eventual return of Voldemort in “Harry Potter”) but my curiosity to see how that turns out doesn’t even touch on my disappointment with the quality of writing. Not to mention, the audiobook was very poorly done. It was glaringly obvious that even portions from the same scene were recorded separately and clumsily edited together, so that the tone of the actor’s voice changed emotion from sentence to sentence without any rhyme or reason or cue from the text. It was awful.

I think the basic concept is decent, and I really wish the execution of “Percy Jackson” had worked, but it just didn’t for us. We won’t be listening to Book 2, that’s for sure.

Did you or your kids read “Percy Jackson”? And don’t say you saw the movie. They are totally different. But that’s a-whole-nother blog post.

6 comments:

  1. My husband and I read "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief" as the movie came out on the advice of friends who also really enjoyed the HP series. (FWIW - We LOVE, LOVE, LOVE HP and have reread all 7 books ... several times ... out-loud to each other so we could discuss throughout the whole storyline.) We agree whole-heartedly with your assessment. It was poorly written, even for children, didn't do a THING with awesome Greek mythology (other than use it basically as a reference) and didn't hold our attention long enough to want to even think about attempting any more books in the series. We did watch the movie after reading the book and didn't enjoy that either. This will not be one we will encouraging our children to read in the near future.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And don't even get me started on the whole "tree-hugger" aspects randomly thrown in. All I could think as I was reading it was "Really???".

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good to know. I have been thinking about reading this series b/c of assumed similarities to HP. I am thinking I will pass on that now.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I just finished the whole series. I am a college student and wanted a cute book to read. I enjoyed it. I do think that the similies and pop culture references resulted from Riordan trying too hard to make it a kid's book. But I thought the series was cute. I unfortunately knew very little beforehand about the Greek gods and so I really did learn about the gods and creatures, which I think is important to kids.

    P.S. It says in the book that Percy was named after the hero Perseus because he was one of the few half-bloods who had a good life.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I just finished the whole series. I am a college student and wanted a cute book to read. I enjoyed it. I do think that the similies and pop culture references resulted from Riordan trying too hard to make it a kid's book. But I thought the series was cute. I unfortunately knew very little beforehand about the Greek gods and so I really did learn about the gods and creatures, which I think is important to kids.

    P.S. It says in the book that Percy was named after the hero Perseus because he was one of the few half-bloods who had a good life.

    ReplyDelete
  6. My husband and I also listened to this on a car trip this past Christmas. We just turned it off. I might pick up the books at somepoint, but our audiobook was awful.

    ReplyDelete

I was nice and didn't turn on word verifications. Please reciprocate by having your reply-to email set and not posting anonymously.