Our story begins with the King of the gods gazing down at the doings of earth creatures: “Zeus wiles away whole centuries watching the little figures scurrying to their deaths.” Besides, he had a weakness for mortal or demigod women, and the latest to take his fancy is the sea-nymph Thetis. But Thetis is destined to have a son who grows up to be greater than his father, and Zeus can’t have that. So Plan B is to marry her off to a mortal, and after she conceives a son by that husband she’ll be safe for Zeus, because Zeus will be safe from any murderous progeny. There’s some “lying with” in this retelling, so you might want to skim it first to make sure it’s suitable for your audience. The paternity of certain characters is essential to the plot, which forms the backstory to the Trojan War. For Thetis’s son is, of course, Achilles: the hero, if there is one, of that epic conflict.
The narrative is measured and slightly formalistic, as though we were listening to a blind poet in a smoky hall. All the highlights and heroes of Homer’s epic make their appearance, in very stylized illustrations that echo the figures on Grecian urns–with generous dashes of modern fancy. Both solid and imaginative, The Adventures of Achilles makes a good introduction to The Iliad for middle-schoolers. A CD is included in the version I read.
NOTE: this volume follows The Adventures of Odysseus, published in 2010. I haven’t seen that one–there was some “lying with” in that story too, as I recall, but it’s probably worth checking out.
So, how did Zeus get started? No, how did time get started? No—what was the beginning of earth and sky? To tell this tale, O’Connor (illustrator of Captain Awesome , along with an impressive graphic-novel resume) goes back to Mother Earth. Hungry for companionship, Gaea created the sky, Ouranos, to keep her company. From their union came the Titans, as well as monsters like the Cyclopes and the Hekodonchieres (with fifty heads and 100 hundred hands). The monster children don’t please Ouranos, who throws them into Tartarus. This angers their mother Gaea, so she makes a sickle out of the quarter moon, which the titan Kronos uses to slash open the sky and establish himself as King. No better dad than his own dad, he swallows each child his wife Rhea bears, except the last: our hero.
With the exception of a few jokey touches and a lot of comic-book grunting (Rarrgh! Hurh! Nngh!), the story is told straight-up with impressive art work and informative notes at the end. Also discussion questions, such as, “Zeus’s dad tries to eat him. Has your dad ever tried to eat you?” (There are a few serious discussion questions, too). The Olympians series includes four more titles now, dedicated respectively to Athena, Hades, Hera, and (later this year) Poseidon. For comic book fans, there’s no downside to them.
The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus #3), by Rick Riordan. Hyperion, 2012, 608 pages. Age/interest level: 10-up.
After an excursion through Egyptian mythology with the Kane Chronicles, Riordan returns to his old stomping ground with Heroes of Olympus. As the series title suggests, these are stories told by an ensemble, not a single protagonist–Percy Jackson doesn’t even show up in the first volume, The Lost Hero, because he’s the lost hero. The Mark of Athena is the middle title of five. Riordan included enough information about the previous episodes (not too awkwardly) to bring me up to speed, and if more information was needed, that’s what Wikipedia is for.
First impression: it’s long. Like the Harry Potter series, every volume gets a little longer as the stakes are raised higher. The main premise of Heroes is that there’s a whole cohort of Roman demi-gods (teens with one divine parent) who occupy their own Camp Jupiter on the west coast and have no clue at first about their Greek counterparts at Camp Half-Blood in the east. The big, earthshaking threat comes from Mother Earth herself—Gaea, who is gathering her monsters and giants to destroy all mortals and start over with a new regime. Camps Half-Blood and Jupiter must combine forces to thwart her, but that can only happen if they settle an old conflict involving the statue of Athena stolen from the Parthenon a few thousand years ago.
So . . . when The Mark of Athena opens, seven Greek and Roman demi’s have formed a team to find the statue and thwart Gaea and unravel all the cryptic prophesies periodically spouted at them by mysterious old hags. The Percy Jackson formula is soon in full gear: encounters with gods and other mythological characters, semi-comic villains and terrifying villains (who are sometimes the same), a journey with many side trips, and every 100 pages or so, a perilous, all-but-certain-death situation that makes you wonder How will they get out of this one?
The plusses of this series are irresistible page-turning (even though experienced readers may feel a little manipulated), easily distinguishable characters (a good thing when there’s so many of them) and a variety of settings, such as the Deep South with echoes of the Civil War. Nuggets of interesting information are strewn throughout the narrative, not just about mythology but also architecture, engineering, history, and language: did you know, for example, that the calens is the first day of the Roman month? Noble themes like sacrifice and loyalty have their day, in which the demi’s always outshine their divine parents. There’s also a truly spectacular conclusion, even though it took too long to get there. Philosophical or theological types might find some interesting thoughts raised by the demi-god conflict: i.e., living with both sides of their natures (human and divine), which has some relevance to the Christian life when you think about it. As most readers probably won’t.
As for the downside, I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s criticism of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: the incessant wisecracking brings legendary heroes down to the level of Saturday Night Live (. Not that Aphrodite or Hercules deserves our admiration, but the old myths have endured through the ages because they contained some real element of glory and terror and transcendence. Athena is also formulaic—the plot develops like a video game, where the player escapes one level of danger only to tangle with similar death-dealing fiends in the next. And did I mention it was really long? (I listened to it on a playaway, so I could at least be mopping floors or shelling walnuts in the meantime.) Still a fun read, with dashes of romance (Percy and AnnaBeth are now 16, so it’s inevitable) but no bad language or graphic violence.
For thoughts on “the new paganism,” see our original Percy Jackson review here. Somewhat related topics: primordial terror. and the jokefication of classic tales. Yesterday’s post on classic myth retellings is here. And coming this spring, a new series based on Norse mythology–stay tuned!