Rediscovering: Rick Riordan

This is the first of my posts in the Rediscovering series, where my focus will be on reviewing works of authors whom I stopped following as my reading list began to expand. My method of doing this will be fairly simple – I’ll be taking a week to read through major work an author I have previously enjoyed has written, excluding the books I can remember in their entirety. This will mean a lot of reading, but I believe it’ll be a fun little project to have ongoing. Additionally, it’ll help me catch up on a lot of authors I’ve missed out due to my ignorance – which is what I’m looking forward to the most.

As an avid fan of mythology and someone who loves learning History, I thought it would be best if I started this off with Rick Riordan. Here’s what I read over the course of the week (bear in mind, these books are written in a super enjoyable style – so you can go cover-to-cover in a sitting.):

1. The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus #1): ***
2. The Son of Neptune (The Heroes of Olympus #2): ****
3. The Mark of Athena (The Heroes of Olympus #3): *****
4. The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus #4): *****
5. The Blood of Olympus (The Heroes of Olympus #5): ***
6. The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo #1): ****
7. The Dark Prophecy (The Trials of Apollo #2): ***
8. The Burning Maze (The Trials of Apollo #3): **** 

Clearly, a bunch of Riordan reading has taken place. Prior to this, I had read the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and a bit of the Kane Chronicles series, in addition to add-on books Riordan had published. Further, I’m a huge fan of the 39 Clues series – so it was really lovely to read the books he had authored there.

This piece will focus on highlights of Riordan’s writing, as well as critical comments on what I think makes his books difficult to read. I’ll divide this up into a couple of parts so it’s easier to structure and follow.

Plot

It is extremely difficult to read books that don’t have plots. While I hugely respect individuals who are able to write an entire novel and put it up for the world to critique, I, personally find it very challenging to read fictional published work that doesn’t have progression of a plot. It gets way worse when an author announces that the book is a part of a series – because there needs to be a grander narrative at play to keep me engaged. Considering I read two Riordan series  back-to-back, I was initially quite skeptical that I would be hooked throughout the week. At various points, I was quite certain that I would be disengaged. Yet, Riordan managed to draw me in. Here’s what I admire the most about his work. If you’ve read the Percy Jackson series, you’ll be able to relate to this really well. Aside from the individual narratives at play within each book – with quests, and Percy making friends/enemies in the demi(God) world in the process, there’s a grander plot narrative of Camp Half-Blood and it’s struggle in the wake of continuous crises that it faces. Moreover, there’s constant plot progression with new sub-arcs being introduced, and fresh characters being fleshed out – at just the right places. It’s what makes you want to read further. Especially if you’re a fan of mythology – because prior to the release of the next book, all you can think about is which Greek/Roman God will you be seeing next? And why? That element of engagement is crucial.

Riordan carries that forward to both of these series’ with ease. The plot of each book is varied (which for me, marks out why some have 3 stars and some have 4), but the series, viewed has a whole, has a consistent plot progression which I thoroughly enjoyed. There’s this supreme back and forth taking place between Camp Half-Blood and Camp Jupiter, and the tension, and ultimate camaraderie between the protagonist of each Camp (technically speaking), keeps you hooked as you move from one book to the next.

Plot-wise, the Trials of Apollo seem to be something Riordan put in more effort into. With The Heroes of Olympus, the ability to switch between characters’ voices makes it easier to develop plot – because you’re able to continue the narrative/repeat a sequence of events from a different voice. Since the Trials of Apollo focus exclusively on Apollo, it seems to have had more nuance to it, which took me back to the Percy Jackson days.

All in all, what I appreciate the most is that Riordan seems to have things planned out before starting a series. I do believe there is comfort a reader has when they know exactly how many books a series will contain (I feel this way), and that assurance hits it peak with authors like Riordan, who appear to have a map of exactly how things will play out, and seem to fit in ideas they have later, almost casually as subplots within a grander scheme.

Character and Character Development

While having strong characters aids plot development greatly, I do believe this aspect of Riordan’s writing is what draws him the most amount of praise. The demographic that reads Riordan’s books are a part of the age group that is the most impressionable. The values they learn essentially guide an entire generation. The world is a cruel place, and there’s a lot of discrimination that several individuals are trying to ward off and eliminate. Riordan does it by introducing characters who have the broadest spectrum of interests I have ever seen in a fictional piece, with the broadest origin stories (in terms of ethnicity). The “identity” of a character in a Rick Riordan book is not marked out by their appearance (although that helps with the aesthetic and the fanart), or their sexuality (although Riordan does ignore one part of the sexual spectrum), or gender – there’s a lot of emphasis on the virtues that make up a person.

This is not to make him sound like the Ubermensch of the writing art. What I love about Riordan’s work is that when characters bully/discriminate against other characters, there’s a lot of positive reinforcement about the unique worth of an individual. Whether this is done in the form of  a “God’s” speech, or in the form of a romantic arc, or even in the form of friends who support someone – there’s always this constant belief that each person in the book adds value to the book itself. Which is exactly what the real world works like. I know this sounds supremely profound, but it’s true. It’s also one thing I believe Riordan has done better than Rowling – planned out characters instead of labeling their attributes post-publication.

That’s one part. The other thing Riordan does really well is give each character a sense of purpose and a bit of development. Right from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, there have been characters who fade in an out at pivotal points in the Universe to move Percy (who I still consider a protagonist) forward. Whether this is Grover, who appears at various points in the Heroes of Olympus sequence, or even Leo (who ends up fading out and returning), I think Riordan does a great job of phasing in characters and giving us a break from one perspective to learn more about everyone else.

By shifting across points of view, Riordan is also able to give each character a unique voice. You’re able to get an almost cinematic view of what is happening – from three/four angles at any given point of time. Each character has their own priorities, their own struggles, their own perspective to every hurdle thrown at them. That’s pretty cool.

Lastly, what Riordan does with each character – by adapting them to modern times, is just outstanding. To give each God a persona that is in line with what we know most commonly about them (so they’re relatable), yet, a persona that dignifies their stature in history (so they’re accurate), takes a lot of research and deserves credence. Midas (who has a “golden” touch) is a great exemplar – I’ll elaborate on this a little more in the next section.

However, my biggest grouse with Riordan was how the Heroes of Olympus series ended. If I was following the series intently, I do believe I would have developed a strong bond with Percy and Annabeth – who seem to have survived the worst of most quests in the books and, literally, survived, the longest. The screentime they receive in Blood of Olympus, both individually, and together, is a little tragic – I think there was a little more to extract out of them.

There are still books to come, so I’m eager to see whether they return in starring roles (Percy has) at a later stage.

The Universe

A critical aspect of any memorable series is the Universe it creates. Its why I loved the Three Body Problem so much. Rick Riordan tries to make history more grasp-able so-to-speak. By adapting really old, sentinel-esque figures of the Roman and Greek tales into the common, modern, accessible world, Riordan creates a Universe where normal human beings interact with superior powers, separated from them by The Mist. He’s able to inject aspects of everyday life – such as telephone calling and modern clothing, in addition to corporations we interact with, like Amazon into a plot that’s filled with historical detail. Further, what I think makes him stand out is that he creates a visual representation of what this world looks like by mapping it directly onto cities within the United States of America.

By locating the entrance to Olympus, the Oracle of Delphi, and several other Greco-Roman pieces within the broad framework of the United States of America map, Riordan is able to inject cultural nuances into the persona of each demi(God) – and to help Camp Half-Blood come to life.

As someone whose American geography is terrible, I ignored these aspects, but once I finished the series, the breadth of their travels, and the amount of detail Riordan plays to elements like seasonal weather, and accents, and dressing sense is quite admirable. It creates character relatability as well, which helps the series endure.

Dialogue

There’s an ease with which Riordan creates deep, meaningful dialogue, and manages to intersperse it with a lot of humor. Personally, I think this mimics everyday life the most. My problem with John Green is that the way his characters talk is not what people of his characters age really sound like. That’s not an issue I face with Riordan. His characters act their age – some more mature than others, but they all sound like what people of their age would ordinarily sound like. They’re the kind of people I wouldn’t mind hanging out with over lunch, versus Green’s characters, who I’m more likely to engage in conversation with at 2AM, when I’m feeling super philosophical.

The dialogue Riordan uses also adds to the voice of each character. Through subtle grammatical features – like an ellipsis, or longer, winding sentences, you’re able to identify yourself with the voice of each character. I heard an audiobook version of The Son of Neptune after I finished the book – and the narrator of the version I heard did a phenomenal job of recognizing the subtleties of each voice and bringing it to life. It’s what I think makes casting a Riordan movie really tough – you’ll have to find people who sound distinct – which is a challenge in today’s industry.

If you want a glimpse into what I mean by the power of Riordan’s dialogue, here are samples:

A. Leo’s response

“I’m the son of Jupiter, I’m a child of Rome, consul to demigods, praetor of the First Legion. I slew the Trojan sea monster, I toppled the black throne of Kronos, and destroyed Titan Krios with my own hand. And now I’m going to destroy you Porphyrion, and feed you to your own wolves.”
“Wow, dude,” Leo muttered, “You been eating red meat?” 

B.  Percy

“Reyna sent me to get Percy,” Frank said. “Did Octavian accept you?”
“Yeah,” Percy said. “He slaughtered my panda.”

C. The pun with “lairs”

“They’re Lares. House gods.”
“House gods,” Percy said. “Like…smaller than real gods, but larger than apartment gods?” 

D. The Identity Crisis

“You’re that lady,” Leo said. “The one who was named after Caribbean music.”
Her eyes glinted murderously. “Caribbean music.”
“Yeah. Reggae?” Leo shook his head. “Merengue? Hold on, I’ll get it.”
He snapped his fingers. “Calypso!”

E. The use of Noob

“Akhlys lunged at Percy, and for a split second he thought: Well, hey, I’m just smoke. She can’t touch me, right?
He imagined the Fates up in Olympus, laughing at his wishful thinking: LOL, NOOB!” 

Takeaways

Young adult writing is not just for kids. I think it’s worth appreciating how these works can also be viewed as literary masterpieces, because that’s what they are, sometimes. Additionally, they often provide as forays into bits and pieces of culture, and history – which is what I think Riordan is very, very successful in doing.

While assessing Riordan’s work, the New Yorker presents a piece called “The Percy Jackson Problem”, which I personally think is just a descriptive essay about a debate that has long been going on – should we be worried about what kids read? Is all reading good? I think that’s something worth considering and formulating your own opinion on. For me, at that age, inculcating a reading habit was important – and I don’t think it’s necessary to enforce genre-specific reading on everyone. People can choose to embrace young adult literature for the entirety of their lives – that doesn’t make them any less a “reader” than you are.

Lastly, I think Riordan ought to be appreciated for the sheer volume he writes. It’s almost as if he publishes a book a year – which is astounding pace for anyone. Especially considering he’s writing upward of 500 pages for each book.

All-in-all, I’ve had a pretty great week. I’d recommend all of Riordan’s books that I’ve read to you, barring the Kane Chronicles.

Let me know what you think of this series – I’m hoping to continue it atleast once a month.

Cheers!

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