Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson and Lightning Thief, Puffin, London, 2005, 978-0-141-32999-4
Before I begin, let me say I enjoyed Rick Riodan’s Percy Jackson story. According to my local bookseller, Mathew Wake, the book has had quite a success with young people. I listened to the audio version twice. The gleeful helter-skelter of action kept the story and me as reader moving forward. But the book left me unsatisfied and I wanted to know why. The first thing to spring to mind was the boy’s age.
How old are you Percy Jackson? Twelve, sir.
This is not a quote from the book, but it could have been. As I read the story, the question of the main character’s age kept niggling at me. The action didn’t necessarily require him to be twelve. Why did the author choose that age? To have a character with a certain naïveté or innocence? Not really, judging from the boy’s past. A spontaneous if not reckless way of reacting? Possibly. A license for playfulness if not tomfoolery? Probably.
In terms of age, there is considerable leeway about what young characters can and cannot do in a novel compared with reality. It is part of the appeal of YA for fiction writers. Tolerance can be stretched quite far, before the reader is forced out of the story by doubt and then incredulity. I am not sure that Percy Jackson being twelve was essential to the story.
Another facet of the book that may have contributed to my dissatisfaction was its limited perspective. Rather like a one-street town, all the action in this first person narrative was strung out along one single thread. If action drove the story forward, what could give it depth? Why bother? You might ask. Why indeed? Because as an author I believe we owe it to our (young) readers to go beyond excitement and entertainment.
Rick Riodan uses a heavy dose of cultural backstory from the life of Greek gods that, although it is pertinent to the story and often cleverly introduced, works a bit like a souped-up history lesson, but is not sufficient to provide an impression of depth. He also tries to engage the reader by referring to familiar situations in a young reader’s life, but these work more as markers of age and place rather than as an opening for deeper insight into the character and ultimately oneself.
Beyond all that, though, I think it is the flippancy with which many potentially deeper subjects are treated that leads to my dissatisfaction. I wonder if such an approach is not condescending towards young adults. I cannot help but compare Riodan’s comic-book description of the passage through the underworld with Philip Pullman’s majestic prose in the last volume of His Dark Materials. Riodan punctuates the story with anachronous nods and winks at modern American life that are meant to be funny or possibly reassuring. No wonder I was dissatisfied. I expect more than just excitement or entertainment from a story.