The Percy Jackson & the Olympians series has been rightly compared to the Harry Potter series. Both of them are about young boys who discover that they posess supernatural powers and go to a school to learn how to control them. Both series use a different supernatural medium to tell the story. Harry Potter uses witches and wizards, whereas Percy Jackson uses the Greek gods and goddesses. Quite simply, if you find Harry Potter problematic for those reasons then there are similar problems to be found in the pages of the Percy Jackson series.
That's not to say that there's nothing good in the Percy Jackson series, just as it's hasty to dismiss the Harry Potter series for the same reasons. Both of the series are among some of the better modern children's literature out there today.
The premise of the Percy Jackson series is simple: what if the Greek gods lived among us today, and what if they continued to have children with mortal women, and what if those children also lived among us today? It's a premise that seems to set up some dubious situations, but that is handled surprisingly well. To begin with, here is Rick Riordan's statement on the series as regards the gods themselves:
The Lightning Thief explores Greek mythology in a modern setting, but it does so as a humorous work of fantasy. I’m certainly not interested in changing or contradicting anyone’s religious beliefs. Early in the book, the character Chiron makes a distinction between God, capital-G, the creator of the universe, and the Greek gods (lower-case g). Chiron says he doesn’t want to delve into the issue of God, but he has no qualms about discussing the Olympians because they are a “much smaller matter.” The gods of Olympus are archetypes. They are deeply embedded in and inseparable from Western thought. The book pays tribute to the legacy of Olympus as one of the roots of our culture....
Though Rick Riordan obviously doesn't believe that the Greek gods still exist, the books seem to imply that the archetypes of the gods are the driving force behind Western civilization. We, of course, would disagree. Christianity itself has been the main driving force behind Western civilization, from preserving literature in the monasteries during the Dark Ages to inspiring some of the greatest ever writers, composers, artists, kings, queens, scholars, and political leaders.
But the influence of the Greeks is undeniable. Most classical history curriculums spend at least a chapter on Greek mythology, sometimes more. Greek mythology is itself just that: myths and stories.
That being said, the series itself is a fun introduction to Greek mythology for both kids and adults. Percy, though a bit of a troublemaker, is a likable character with a really fun narrative voice. Throughout the book he grows up a bit as he learns that more is riding on him than just whether or not he'll stay in school. Other people depend on him, and this causes him to take more responsibility for his own actions. The book has fun taking classic Greek myths and updating them with tongue-in-cheek jabs at modern culture—for example, Percy and his friends go looking for the entrance to the underworld. It's in Hollywood.
The underworld in the Percy Jackson series is a cold and depressing place, just as it was in Greek mythology. There are the people who are punished, there are the people who just mill about in the afterlife, and then there are the super special people who've lived really really good lives and get to go to a Bahamas-type paradise. This provides a stark contrast with the Christian view of the afterlife that should be obvious.
The books are very funny, and the humor relies on poking fun at Greek mythology, or on Percy's dry and often anti-climactic reactions to some of the fantastic things that happen around him. It's free of most of the crude humor that's a staple of a lot of modern children's literature. Though a knowledge of Greek mythology make the books funnier it's not required and readers will learn as they go.
One effect of updating the Greek myths (and benefit derived from the influence of Christian morality on Western civilization and subsequently, our culture) is that the gods are called out for being what they are—selfish, rash, and really really bad fathers. Percy, wondering where his dad is, wishes that the man had the guts to marry his mom. The gods are promiscuous and serially abandon their kids, just kind of hoping that they'll grow up okay, and the consequences of those actions create the main conflict of the book. The titular lightning thief is a son of one of the gods who is upset with their habit of fathering children and then leaving them on earth. This is a moral judgment rarely passed on the gods in any Greek mythology book.
True to the good old quest stories, Percy Jackson is a kid who learns to grow up and take responsibility for his actions on a series of adventures that teach him about friendship, loyalty, and bravery. Rick Riordan tells the classic stories with a charming and humorous twist that imparts more morality than your average retelling of the classic Greek myths.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here.
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