The Lightning Thief
A book review for parents
This fantasy adventure is the first book in "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series by Rick Riordan and is published by Miramax Books, a division of Hyperion Books for Children.
The Lightning Thief is written for kids ages 10 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Twelve-year-old Percy Jackson, diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, is about to get kicked out of another boarding school when monsters start chasing him. His mother and best friend, Grover, rush him to a summer camp called Half-Blood Hill. A half-man/half-bull attacks him as he prepares to cross the property line, and Percy wakes up in the camp, knowing the creature has either taken or killed his mother. Grover (who turns out to be a satyr, or half man/half goat) and others nurse Percy back to health with ambrosia and explain that he and the other campers are children of Greek gods.
The gods of mythology are alive and well, ruling over the current center of the universe, America. They still have affairs with humans, creating children with special powers, who often struggle in the human world. Many of these kids stay at Half-Blood Hill to hone their demi-god skills and avoid the monsters that attack them outside of the camp. Percy learns he is the only living son of Poseidon, the sea god, and that he possesses many powers that are enhanced when he comes in contact with water.
Because of a misunderstanding between Poseidon, Zeus and Hades, a war seems imminent. Half-Blood Hill administrators send Percy (along with Grover and another camper named Annabeth) to the Underworld to retrieve Zeus' thunderbolt from Hades, who supposedly stole it. The modern-day Underworld exists beneath the city of Los Angeles, while the modern Olympus is above New York City. The kids travel cross-country by train and bus. Along the way, they encounter numerous creatures and gods who strive to prevent them from reaching California.
After a tour through the Underworld and a meeting with Hades, the kids realize Kronos, king of the Titans — and father of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon — is trying to pit his sons against one another with the help of Ares, god of war. Percy visits Olympus (via an elevator inside the Empire State Building). He meets his father for the first time, as well as Zeus, and explains Kronos' plan. Percy, Grover and Annabeth return as heroes to Half-Blood Hill. Hades restores Percy's mother to life, and Percy decides to put up with monster attacks in order to try living with her again outside of Half-Blood Hill.
In the Underworld, Percy and his friends see a televangelist who raised millions for orphanages but got caught spending it on his mansion and cars. Grover says really bad people like him get special attention and torture from Hades.
According to myth, Kronos kept five of his children prisoner in his stomach until they got out, sliced him to pieces and scattered his remains in the darkest part of the Underworld. In The Lightning Thief, Kronos (though still in pieces) is alive, regaining some of his power and using demi-gods to help him bring disunity among his sons. Luke, a counselor at the camp, is one of Kronos' pawns. Luke trains Percy to use a sword and pretends to befriend him, but ultimately tries to kill him. Percy's mom (Sally) tells him he was born from an affair and that his father was an important man who was lost at sea. She does her best to protect Percy from the monsters, even to the point of marrying Gabe, a man so rude, mean and foul smelling that his stench covers Percy's demi-god scent. (This keeps the monsters away.) Gabe hits Sally, drinks a lot, smokes cigars and constantly plays poker with his buddies, while demanding that Sally makes them food. Sally rids herself of Gabe in the end by turning him to stone with the severed head of Medusa. In the beginning, Percy's boarding school English teacher (Chiron) challenges him to excel and refuses to let him use his learning disabilities as excuses. Percy later learns Chiron is a staff member at Half-Blood Hill. At camp, he continues to support and encourage Percy. Poseidon reveals to Percy and the campers that he is Percy's father, but this may be because he needs the boy's help in his feud with Zeus and Hades. When Percy meets Poseidon, the god shows some level of pride in his son's actions but makes no particular effort to bond with him. Many of the demi-god kids are resentful toward their Olympian parents, who are busy and ignore them.
Other Belief Systems
The premise of The Lightning Thief is that the gods of mythology exist today and control world events with their magical powers. For example, Percy says the visits of agriculture goddess Demeter, not the tilt of the planet, create the seasons. As in the ancient myths, the gods and goddesses still have affairs with humans. Their children, such as Percy, are powerful demi-gods. Children of the Big Three gods (Hades, Zeus and Poseidon) have greater powers than other demi-gods and also have a stronger aura that attracts more monsters. When Percy asks whether there is a God, Chiron tells him that God with a capital G is a different than the Greek gods, and he doesn't want to address the metaphysical. He says that gods — the immortal beings that control the forces of nature and human endeavors — are a smaller matter, but they are real. He tells Percy that the concept of Western Civilization is a living force that was heavily shaped by the influence of the gods. As the centers of power have moved throughout history, so have the gods, who now live in, above and below America. The gods cannot be held responsible for the actions of mortals, so they always operate through humans. Many famous people in history, including George Washington, were demi-gods. The monsters that pursue them are primal forces without souls so they cannot die, only re-form themselves. The Oracle of Delphi (a spirit that lives in the attic at Half-Blood Hill) provides prophesies concerning what the demi-gods will or must do. The oracle has given Chiron prophesies about Percy, which Chiron keeps mostly to himself. When Percy arrives at the camp, Annabeth believes it is an omen that she'll finally get to go on a quest. Prior to his quest, Percy visits the Oracle and is met with the nightmarish image of a powerful spirit in the form of a mummy's body. When Percy says he doesn't believe in gods, the camp director says he'd better start believing before they incinerate him. Later, when he does believe, he says that as a half-blood, he knows that a bad day isn't a result of simple bad luck but of the intervention of a divine force. Grover calls Pan (god of wild places) the satyrs' lord and master. Evenings at Half-Blood Hill include camper rituals such as toasting the gods and giving the best part of their dinner as an offering. Later, they sit at the campfire and sing songs about the gods.
Percy visits the Underworld to retrieve Zeus' thunderbolt from Hades, also called Lord of the Dead. Percy first encounters desperate souls in a waiting room. Then, as the spirits ride the down elevator toward the Underworld, their modern clothes turn to grey hooded robes. Percy and his friends pass the heavily polluted River Styx and see people tortured as they're chased by hellhounds, burned at the stake, forced to run naked through cactus patches and worse. People who don't want to face judgment can plead "no contest" and be sent directly to the Asphodel Fields. Percy describes the fields as a gigantic stadium packed with millions of fans, but there are no lights and no noise, and people just mill around forever. A small section of the Underworld called Elysium is beautiful and inviting, similar to a resort in the Bahamas. It is reserved for people who have been reborn three times and have been good and heroic. Mainly, Percy describes the Underworld as a place with evil and deathly scents, skeleton guards and images on the walls of various earthly disasters and wars. Hades, who possesses an intense evil charisma, such as that seen in pictures of Hitler, sits on a throne of fused human bones. When he moves, his robe shows tormented human faces. He tells Percy that if Percy crosses him, he will let the dead pour back onto the earth, and Percy's skeleton will lead them.
Percy "prays" a number of times. Sometimes he prays to his father (Poseidon), and other times he seems to be making a wish more than praying to anyone. The three-headed dog in the Underworld tells Percy and his friends that they can pray to the god of their choice before he eats them. When Percy learns he's being sent to the Underworld, he is overcome with a desire for revenge rather than being afraid.
Sally tells Percy she doesn't want him to save her from Gabe. She says that if her life is going to mean anything, she has to live it herself and not let a god take care of her.
The Half-Blood Hill crowd uses phrases like Oh Styx, Olympus knows…, Di immortals!, gods forbid, by the gods, oh my gods, and may the gods curse him. Heck, darn, suck, and butt each appear a time or two, and a few characters curse without profanity appearing in the text. Percy thinks about how he'd like to kick Gabe in his "soft spot" and make him sing soprano. Percy is injured and bloodied when he's cut with a sword then attacked by a hellhound in a capture the flag game that gets out of control. Though many battles rage, particularly between Percy and various monsters, the scenes are rarely graphic. Mortally wounded people and creatures vaporize into dust or crumble into sand rather than end as bloody, broken bodies. When Percy decapitates Medusa, he sees and feels drippy green juice and little snakes coiling around his feet, but he can't look at the head or he'll turn to stone.
None, other than a brief explanation that gods and humans have had relationships resulting in children.
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, 2005; The New York Times Notable Children's Book, 2005; Young Adult Library Services Association (YALTA) Best Book Award, 2006; and others
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Have you studied any of the mythological characters from this book in school? Which ones?
What did you think of the author's modern-day interpretation of these gods or monsters?
Which characters did you learn about that you didn't know about before?
- Which characters in this book are father figures to Percy?
What are some of Percy's positive and negative father/son experiences?
What are Percy's initial feelings about the father who abandoned him?
When he learns who his father is, how does Percy try to get Poseidon's attention?
How do the other campers at Half-Blood Hill, such as Annabeth and Luke, feel about their fathers?
Why is a father/child relationship important?
- Why is it so amazing to Percy that Poseidon is his father?
What would you do if you found out your dad was that powerful?
Is it ever hard for you to believe you have an infinitely more powerful heavenly Father who loves you?
How does that make you feel?
- Are Percy's heroic powers a gift or a curse? Explain your answer.
What does Poseidon say is a hero's fate?
What kind of future do various characters (including Poseidon) say is in store for Percy, and why does Poseidon say he's sorry Percy was ever born?
- When the campers at Half-Blood Hill show honor to their gods, in what ways is their "worship" similar to Christian worship?
In what ways does it differ?
What characteristics of the mythological gods are similar to and different from God Almighty?
Are the Greek gods loving and approachable?
How does that differ from the God of heaven?
- Why do the residents and staff at Half-Blood Hill frequently tell Percy that names have power?
Do you agree that names are powerful? Explain your answer.
(Parents could take this opportunity to talk about the various names of Jesus mentioned in the Bible and/or the power of praying in His name.)
- What advantage does Percy have over Ares?
What does Annabeth mean when she says that even strength has to bow to wisdom sometimes?
Would you rather have physical strength or wisdom? Explain.
Where can you get wisdom if you're lacking in it?
- Why does Percy's mom refuse to let him get rid of Gabe for her?
Do you agree or disagree with her belief that to live a meaningful life, she must do it herself and not let a god take care of her?
Do you need divine intervention in your life, or can you do it all yourself? Explain your answer.
- What do you think of the Underworld in this story?
How is it like or unlike the way you imagine hell might be?
Lying/Cheating: Percy lies to his mom about his school activities so she won't worry. On their quest, Percy, Annabeth and Grover lie repeatedly to those who ask what they're doing, where their parents are, etc. Percy also deceives his friends by not telling them the entire prophesy he received from the Oracle. Percy admits to turning in a paper he copied off of the Internet while in boarding school.
Alcohol: The camp director is Dionysus, the god of wine. His father, Zeus, tortures him by forbidding him to have alcohol and making him work at Half-Blood Hill.
Environmental stewardship: Grover, as a satyr who hails to the god of wild places, notes several times that humans have done devastating things to the world and its creatures. His point is proven when the kids encounter and help some mistreated animals in a truck marked "humane zoo transport." In the Underworld, Percy's guide says that the horrible pollution of the River Styx has been caused by poor human waste management.
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