In Which I Try To Pretend This Book/Series Is Deeper Than It Probably Really Is
I don't know why, but I've come to realize that I actually find my love of this series slightly embarrassing.
Having read it as a child though, it had an impact on my growth in a way I consistently underestimate.
For a long time I've found the attitudes of the literary community towards children extremely confusing. A lot of reviewers, when they read books they find to be immature or simplistic, will call it "very young." If a YA book has any strikingly complex language, many will say "I can't imagine young children actually understanding this." If there's violence or any themes of sexuality, it's going to be "recommended for older readers, not sure about young children, seems a little too dark." I actually started encountering these pervasive attitudes far before I was consciously aware of a literary community, around the same age when I read Percy Jackson; from librarians, teachers, and parents.
It often made me question the validity of my experiences as a child, and I don't mean only in a personal way; I wondered about my schoolmates and friends as well. All the friendships we made, the opinions we formed, the books we read: was it all just a "stage," a period of immaturity to be sneered at in hindsight once we passed the glorious age of 18 years old? One thing children are often told is "you'll understand when you're older." To put it in another, although not perfectly comparable context, it's kind of the same feeling you get when you're trying to learn a foreign language; the fluent speakers will watch your pathetic stumbles and chuckle amusingly, but they won't take seriously the silly idiot's attempts to actually communicate.
Reading this series, but this book especially, I'm forced to ask the same questions, but in a completely different light. Most of these characters are teenagers, which made them perfectly relatable for me, although they were actually a little older than I was. Their ages are pretty central to the story though--not just as a marketable aspect to a target audience--in the uneasy transition between childhood and adulthood, trying to find their destiny as they grow up without too many repercussions. Riordan makes it a little more immediate by making not just the protagonist, but almost all the main characters suffer through the effects of having an absent parent (result of being a demigod). The conflict of the entire series is driven by Luke Castellan's bitterness towards his absent father, Hermes, and his perception that Hermes abandoned him.
I honestly don't know why Percy Jackson is as popular as it is, but the reason why it's so fascinating to me are the questions that seems to be spinning at the story's heart: what happens to you when one of your parents aren't around? How do you forge your identity out of the instability that surrounds you? Do you come to terms with it? Are you strong enough to hang onto yourself long enough to find a new family? Do you even survive?
It's a range of possibility that is explored many ways, through multiple characters and several layered backstories, surprising as that might be in these fast-paced stories. Thalia, Nico, Percy, Annabeth, Luke, Zoe Nightshade, and on and on and on all deal with these problems, and this common struggle is what, to me, starts to blur the line between heroes and villains in this series, because they're all reacting to similar circumstances, but differently based on their personalities and the friends they might be lucky enough to find (or unlucky enough not to find).
In this book, another character is introduced: Ethan Nakamura, who, as we find out later, exchanged his eye in return for a promise from his mother Nemesis (goddess of revenge) that the world would be fair and he'd finally gain respect. Even as a child, even when Ethan only appears for maybe ten pages of this entire book, this character attracted my attention. He's sixteen years old, and he feels enough resentment at the world to sacrifice his own eye, in addition to joining an army of monsters that forces him to fight to the death for entertainment, and eventually, pledge his allegiance to raise Kronos/Cronus himself.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Ethan Nakamura," he said. "I have to kill you."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Hey!" a monster jeered from the stands. "Stop talking and fight already!"
"I have to prove myself," Ethan told me. "Only way to join up."
What strikes me about his interactions with Percy is that Percy's supposed moral high ground isn't enough to turn Ethan from the "dark side"--or the "wrong side," as Annabeth calls it. Already, that's quite a detour from the route of most fantasy stories, where the hero is always in the right, and can "convert" enemies through a single act of mercy or kindness, as indeed Percy does show to Ethan when he decides to spare him. It's an implicit message that a single person's righteousness isn'tenough to reverse years of built-up bitterness, much less correct the source of the problem at hand. In The Last Olympian, that only happens when the "villains" realize that their goals for justice and peace were the same all along, and they make a decision on their own terms to change sides in the name of what they think is right.
It's a strangely powerful message that everyone has a unique side of the story, that we shouldn't underestimate other people's capacity to understand what's going on. That people have reasons for the way they act, legitimate reasons that take effort to understand. For the type of reader that tends to sympathize with villains as much as the protagonists (like me), it's an invaluable show of empathy on the author's part that I can rarely find, but dearly treasure when I do. As a child, I coveted the reassurance that I could actually be right (even when adults thought I was wrong), that I actually possessed the ability to evaluate my situation for myself. Ethan's character, among many, went a long way into solidifying that reassurance. As I've grown older, I find the message to be no less valuable. It's ultimately up to ourselves to decide what we want in life, that our problems have to be solved on our own terms, even if that problem's source comes from a lack of guidance in the first place. It may be uncomfortable that we have to deal with those struggles at a young age, but it's even worse if you leave it to fester and let it provide an ideological scapegoat for all your problems, as Luke so tragically does.
So, how oblivious are children and teenagers to the darkness/imperfections of the world, really? In Percy Jackson's world of gods, heroes, monsters, and Titans, the answer to that would be "oblivious enough to run away from home, build armies, raise a dead evil overlord, and fight a deadly war that ends up tearing apart friendships and kills hundreds of people."(Actually not sure about the numbers, but the offstage death count is implied to be pretty high.)
Just to be clear however, this series doesn't only validate the experiences of the younger generation. The parent and mentor characters are just as flawed, dynamic, and independent as the kids; you've got Hermes's conflicted resignation towards his son's impending fate, Athena's pride in Annabeth, Artemis's relationship with her hunters, Sally Jackson's steady love for Percy, all of whom I find much more appealing and humanizing than Harry Potter's rather cliche Dumbledore, Snape, Harry's dead parents etc.
Although this book resolves with quite a brilliant climactic battle in seven pages of nonstop action, one of the scenes I find myself returning to again and again is the end where Poseidon shows up for Percy's birthday. It's a rare experience for Percy to see his dad, but he treasures it just the same. Instead of inciting resentment on Percy's part, the only thing he really feels is gratitude--because he's been lucky enough to find support in other places. He smiled, and at that moment, just being in the kitchen with him was the best birthday present I ever got.Funny how the positive side of human conflict is mostly represented by Percy, even if the central theme of the story is quite dark. What makes it work is the feeling the reader gets that this is mostly a matter of luck and circumstance, rather than having us take it for granted.
It also provides us with an endearingly sarcastic narrator to tell the story as well, which lightens everything up considerably.