fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsRick Riordan book review Percy Jackson and the Olympians The Lightning ThiefThe Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Truth be told, I wasn’t hugely impressed with the first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief. It was entertaining, yes, but somewhat convoluted, derivative and predictable. Well, with Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, I take it all back. With a more rewarding plot, stronger characterization, and smoother pacing, the second book in the five-part series is an improvement in every respect.

Percy Jackson has recently discovered that his missing father is none other than the sea god Poseidon, and as a demigod he is constantly under threat from various Greek monsters that still roam the earth. Enrolled at a summer camp for training half-bloods, Percy’s last adventure involved (among many other things) coming to terms with his parentage, learning about the powers he possesses, making friends with Grover and Annabeth (a satyr and the daughter of Athena, respectively) and learning about a plot to overthrow the gods.

It is a hectic, frantic, sprawling plot, but now that the characters and world have been introduced, the second book is on much firmer ground. There are fewer time-wasting side quests, and the characters are more comfortable with their powers, motivation, and relationships. The fact that most of the action takes place outside Camp Half-Blood means that there is less room for comparison with Harry Potter’s Hogwarts (though the presence of a monstrous half-brother inevitably brings Hagrid and Grawp to mind). The villain’s master plan that bubbles below the surface of the hero’s quest is far less convoluted (not to mention less obvious), and culminates in a genuinely clever twist. Essentially, there is just more time to breathe.

After a deadly game of dodge-ball at his newest school and a series of troublesome dreams about Grover, Percy is whisked back to Half-Blood camp by Annabeth. There he finds the camp in chaos thanks to the poisoning of the great oak tree on its borders. It was once Thalia, the daughter of Zeus, who was turned into a tree after being fatally wounded. The tree protects the land around it, but now that she’s dying, monsters are invading the camp and endangering the students housed there.

A plan is formed: to rescue Grover and retrieve the Golden Fleece (an object which will heal Thalia), and Percy and Annabeth sneak away with Percy’s large but slow friend Tyson in tow, a character who ends up being more than he seems. With a rival camper determined to beat them to it, and the reappearance of an old enemy on their tails, Percy and Annabeth have a legitimately nail-biting quest ahead of them. The story hurries along at a swift pace, with several cameo appearances from the gods, though frustratingly, the protagonists are *still* walking into obvious traps which only exist in order to introduce an updated version of a Greek monster.

Rick Riordan is clearly having a lot of fun updating certain aspects of Greek mythology and placing it into a contemporary setting. Some of these innovations are ingenious (having established that the gods’ power moves with the centre of Western civilization, it makes perfect sense that the Sea of Monsters is in the Bermuda Triangle), some…not so much (apparently the reason that fast-food chains are so lucrative is because they’re magically linked to the life force of a monster… or something).

Characters are improved though; Percy’s first-person narrative is less annoying and Annabeth is less stand-offish. Grover is a little understated, but some interesting shades of grey have been mingled into Clarisse, the daughter of Ares, who was previously just a one-note bully. Now that the traitor of the last book has been unveiled, there is a personal element to the foe that the protagonists are facing, and although each book so far has a kidnapping/rescue mission (Percy’s mother in the first, and by the looks of it, Annabeth in the third), the fact that we’re already interested and invested in Percy’s friendship with Grover means that the stakes are higher, something that wasn’t particularly apparent when Sally Jackson was snatched. (Plus, there’s always the chance that Grover could fall to the dead best friend cliché…)

All things considered, I think Sea of Monsters is a vast improvement on its predecessor. The plot is better structured and not as needlessly complex, and merging of Greek mythology and urban life is more successful, and the characters are more familiar (and therefore more likeable) this time around. I hope the trend continues for The Titan’s Curse.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians — (2005-2014) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Percy Jackson is a good kid, but he can’t seem to focus on his schoolwork or control his temper. And lately, being away at boarding school is only getting worse — Percy could have sworn his pre-algebra teacher turned into a monster and tried to kill him. When Percy’s mom finds out, she knows it’s time that he knew the truth about where he came from, and that he go to the one place he’ll be safe. She sends Percy to Camp Half Blood, a summer camp for demigods (on Long Island), where he learns that the father he never knew is Poseidon, God of the Sea. Soon a mystery unfolds and together with his friends — one a satyr and the other the demigod daughter of Athena — Percy sets out on a quest across the United States to reach the gates of the Underworld (located in a recording studio in Hollywood) and prevent a catastrophic war between the gods.

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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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