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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Review: Percy Jackson's Greek Gods by Rick Riordan

This book isn't catalogued on BL, but here's the Goodreads page.


This is basically the D'aulaires Book of Greek Myths, illustrations and all, narrated by Percy Jackson. Which adds a hell of a lot more to it than you'd think it would.

I've been disappointed by Riordan's works recently, not just in terms of writing but also his handling of Greek mythology, which was subtle, surreal and imaginative in Percy Jackson, but predictable and repetitive in Heroes of Olympus. Riordan would have you believe that every Greek hero or mortal was an egotistic jerk consumed with bitterness and anger issues. It was a nod to the genuinely painful struggles many Greek heroes had to go through in the original myths, but too distilled into teenage angst to really have much meaning or provide any insightful commentary. In addition, the humor was starting to move from my beloved deadpan jokes of Percy Jackson to an overused coverup for lack of tone.

All that changes here. A large part of it is that it's not Riordan's story, it's his interpretation of an already existing body of stories that most people are familiar with. I've always loved Greek myths, starting with the aforementioned D'Aulaires which was my first exposure. Here, all the familiar characters are brought out with vivid detail, entertaining dialogue, and a sense of humor that's not only funny, but also contains a grain of truth in it that acknowledges the darker and more tragic parts of these stories, parts that I actually never noticed until now, even though these are the exact same stories with the exact same plot and narrated (almost, not quite) the exact same way. That says a lot about Riordan's ability to maintain a balance between being faithful to the original stories and shedding new light on them at the same time.

An example of this would be the story of Daedalus. Of course, everyone understands the death of his son Icarus, but I never pondered the implications of being valued more as a genius inventor than as a human being. Hence, when King Minos locks Daedalus up in his own Labyrinth and he escapes several years later as an old man after being bossed around by his superiors (helping Pasiphae, helping Ariadne) and becoming Minos's punching bag, I already started to get that sense of tragedy from the story, that Daedalus always seems to be choosing between his brilliance and his freedom.

Still, the story manages to be utterly hilarious. When Daedalus escapes to Sicily and solves Minos's conch shell puzzle, here's the note he sends Minos:

Solved your little puzzle. What else you got?
Come and give me my reward.
I'm in Cocalus's palace, Sicily.


(I'm not sure if it works without context, but there's Percy Jackson for you.)

A more original twist of Riordan's is how he mocks the fucking shit out of sexism. At first, looking at the list of twelve heroes I kept asking, "where's Odysseus?" Then I realized that Riordan went out of his way to bring female heroes into the mix, totaling four out of twelve: Psyche, Otrera, Atalanta, and Cyrene. All of them are just as heroic, funny, and entertainingly portrayed as the male heroes--even Psyche, whose journey is a lot more love story than adventure story. I loved the jokes about how the gods and kings only cared about getting sons, and often just left their women pregnant and alone to raise their kids all by themselves. Mothers of heroes in this book get to be heroes in their own right, in a way. And I'm making it sound a lot more serious than it really is, because these acknowledgements are given in a totally un-serious way...but it still is serious, just by virtue of having it mentioned. It also has the added effect of making the exposition feel totally non-exposition-y.

Acrisius had a beautiful daughter named Danae, but that wasn't good enough for him. Back then it was all about sons. You had to have a boy child to carry on the family name, inherit the kingdom when you died, blah, blah, blah. Why couldn't a girl take over the kingdom? I dunno. It's stupid, but that's how it was.

Riordan even takes time to make fun of the expectations placed on ancient Greek women when he's trying to explain why Otrera became an Amazon, which both gives us a full one and a half pages of laughs and sets her up to be quite a sympathetic character. Remarkable for a ruthless woman warrior.

Once you were old enough to marry--and by that I mean like twelve or thirteen--your dad would pick your husband for you. The lucky guy might be older. He might be ugly. He might be fat. But don't worry! Your dad would make sure your husband had the proper social standing so it would reflect well on your dad's reputation... In exchange, your husband would be your dad's ally in his political and business dealings. So, while you're sitting at home, cooking and looking pretty for your old, ugly, fat husband, you can take comfort in knowing it was the best match for your father's interests.


Starting to feel like a homicidal woman yet?


Speaking of female characters though, many of them are also given personalities and voices that are missing in the original myths. Andromeda is a sarcastic teenager who's dryly rolling her eyes even as she's chained to a rock about to be eaten by a sea monster. Theseus's mother Aethra who grits her teeth to raise her son and breathes a sigh of relief when "without Hurricane Theseus blowing through the palace, she might finally get a good night's sleep." Danae manages to fend off the king's unwanted affections by retching, hiding, pretending to be sick, or weeping uncontrollably, and the original narrative of a mother who had to be protected by her son is transformed into this:

For years the king tried to win her affection. For years she resisted.

Their mutual stubbornnes was kind of impressive, actually.

This kind of stuff feels like an afterthought when you're actually reading it, but is impressive in retrospect. If there was anything I thirsted for in my childhood reading of Greek myths, it was probably some good old-fashioned feminist commentary. Along with that are some interpretative speculations, one of which is: what caused Heracles/Hercules to kill his first family, Hera's madness or his own anger? ...among others I can't remember off the top of my head.

Aside from all that though? This is simply a very, very entertaining book to read. It definitely doesn't dumb down the Greek myths, if anything it brings them more to life with an extensive, but not excessive attention to detail. There are jokes on every page, which might make you shudder if you're not a PJ fan like I am, but the jokes work because they're true. (Ok, there were some jokes that seemed unneeded, but they bothered me for maybe one second before I moved on.) The tragic element of the stories of Greek heroes is given weight but not lingered on, which makes sense in the light of how normal it was for these figures to meet unhappy endings. I found the story of Jason especially depressing, as anyone familiar with it probably will, but it's told in such a fitting way with a balance of humor and humanity and magic that acknowledges the story's darkness even as it accepts it. Sometimes we don't need Percy's commentary, and in those places, the stories speak for themselves. Very rarely, if at all, did I find Percy's voice overwhelming. This book was a delight to read, reliving the myths of my childhood with a funny but surprisingly mature guy by my side to jump in at all the right moments.