Book Review: Throne of Fire, by Rick Riordan

May 4, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Note: This book is the second of the Kane Chronicles, following The Red Pyramid. If you have not yet read the first, there will be spoilers below.

In The Red Pyramid, siblings Carter and Sadie Kane couldn’t be much more different. Carter, raised by their American father, has traveled the world, dresses like a junior executive, and has been extensively schooled in his father’s subject of interest: Egypt, specifically its mythology and history. Sadie, younger by two years, has been raised in London by their mother’s parents, loves pop culture and hanging with her mates, and making fun of Carter. They’ve been raised separately since the death of their mother, but now- just before Christmas- Dr. Kane has decided it’s time to bring the family together. Unfortunately, the ritual he enacts in their presence kills him and releases the ancient Egyptian gods, two of whom take up residence within the Kane siblings. Their Uncle Amos, their father’s brother, informs them that not only are they descendants of the ancient Pharoahs, but this bloodline makes them magicians. Magicians, of course, have to be trained, always a chancy prospect, especially when the training gets interrupted by little things like the world ending. Hunted by the House of Life, the organization of pharoah-descended magicians with nomes all over the world, Carter and Sadie have to team up with Zia, a House of Life magician with unique abilities; the goddess Bast, who’s been looking after Sadie in the guise of her cat Muffin; and any passing allies they can latch on to in their desperate trek to prevent Set from releasing Apophis.

We pick up with alternating narrators Carter and Sadie a couple of months after the events of their first recording (the story is told as a transcription of an audio recording that was mailed to Rick Riordan). They’ve sent out calling cards across the world and attracted a little under two dozen students who they’ve been training in the mansion in Brooklyn while their uncle Amos recovers from being possessed by the evil god Set. It’s an interesting bunch they’ve attracted, but don’t get too attached- we see almost nothing of their students, something I fervently hope gets remedied in the next book. We get very fleeting references to what could be some awesome characters but the majority of the book leaves the students behind in Brooklyn.

Though they successfully kept Set from releasing Apophis, the threat isn’t over yet. In five days, on the spring equinox when everything is in perfect balance, Apophis will break out of his imprisonment unless the Kanes can get the three scattered pieces of the Book of Ra and summon the ancient king of the gods from his retirement and very long sleep. The thing is, ancient has a bit more meaning when it comes to Ra- broken in mind and body, and thoroughly senile, Ra isn’t exactly the strong presence and king they need him to be, especially when the other gods are in conflict as to the proper course. Horus and Isis, especially, don’t want to see Ra take his former place on his throne of fire if it means they have to step back, and they’re not too thrilled with Sadie and Carter for forging ahead in their quest.

We cover a lot of miles in this one: from Brooklyn to London to Russia to Egypt to deep in the Duat and back to Brooklyn again. In the space of five days. Portals are our friends, but it’s nice to see that there are limits to it. A portal has to cool down before it can be recharged again, which leads to some improvisation. That sense of limitations extends into everything. Sadie, especially, is very aware of these limits as pertains to her magic. She can do some AMAZING things, but the more she did, the bigger the oomph, the more it takes out of her. She doesn’t have the seemingly endless resources of Isis in her anymore, and when it comes right down to it, despite her dual-pharoah bloodline, she’s still a twelve (thirteen!) year old with barely two months of training.

I’ll admit, the age thing trips me up occasionally. Sadie is supposed to be twelve turning thirteen, and Carter fourteen in a couple of months to be fifteen, but they don’t feel like it. They feel like they’re both around sixteen or so, not just in the way they talk and the way they look at things, but also in the way other people treat them and even just in the physical activity. Sadie’s an hysterical narrator, but she doesn’t sound like a tween. Well, excepts perhaps in the sometimes appalling insensitivy. I hurt myself laughing when it came to the camels, but I also felt absolutely horrible for laughing.

You’ll see what I mean when you get there.

Riordan does a very good job of weaving the backstory from previous books into this one (including private jokes from one series to another- cameo of Blackjack, anyone?). It’s gradual, so if you haven’t read the first book since it came out a year ago you may be a little overwhelmed at first as it starts right into a daring museum raid, but it weaves through the first several chapters so you don’t get an info-dump. We get the reminders about meeting Zia, about the last Chief Lector Iskandar, about Set (who, by the way, is ridiculously funny- kind of reminds me of DiNozzo from NCIS, only in better suits), and about Michel Desjardins, the new Chief Lector, and not particularly a friend of the Kanes. Though he allied himself with them to derail Set’s plans at the Red Pyramid, he still believes that their status as former god-hosts and their way of barreling into things without too much forethought make them dangerous enemies to the House of Life, even if they have no specific designs against it.

Desjardins, though, has other problems. He’s become Chief Lector in time to see the dawn of a new age, an age marked in the hall of time by two men struggling against each other. He’s aging extremely rapidly (malevolent influences, anyone?) and at times he appears nearly as senile as Ra is reputed to be, his thoughts muddled and confused as he sorts through what he’s trying to think from what he’s being told. His…what’s the word here? Assistant? Toady? Stooge? At any rate, Vlad Menshikov, leader of the nome in Russia, is a seriously twisted dude, grandson of the infamous Prince Menshikov who was a close friend, and then reviled enemy, of Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. Menshikov may hear the orders from Desjardins, but he’s got his own agenda.

The two things that really mark any of Rick Riordan’s books are mythology and humor. Egyptian mythology is confusing at the best of times, but Riordan really lays it out in ways that make it easy to understand. He literally brings the gods to life. Bast is mostly occupied on a solo mission through this book, but she and her Fancy Feast are still around on the fringes, and Bes, the dwarf god, is absofrickinlutely amazing. He was responsible for some of the reminders that I should look away from the page before taking a drink- laughing and swallowing do not mix. Horus is drawn in an extremely compelling mixture of heroism and petulance. There’s a lot of good to Horus, but there’s also a great deal of ambition, greed, and the determination to keep what he has. Carter has to learn how to separate himself from Horus mentally, to separate out what he genuinely thinks is best from what Horus wants him to believe. No easy task.

And, of course, the humor. Riordan’s heroes definitely have that element in common, but it’s one of the things that make his books so compulsively readable. The way they phrase their observations, the teasing they give each other, even just the names they give things, are priceless. Take, for instance, this sampling of chapter titles:
-Fun With Spontaneous Combustion
-The Ice Cream Man Plots Our Death
-Carter Does Something Incredibly Stupid (and No One Is Surprised)
-Menshikov Hires a Happy Death Squad
-Major Delays at Waterloo Station (We Apologize for the Giant Baboon)
My most favoritest (used only for the most wonderful times) part? WEASEL COOKIES! Whereupon I remembered what it feels like to choke on popcorn and soda. For several minutes. Because I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to stop choking. There are certainly some heavy parts to the book- there are oh crap moments, and sad moments, and moments of incredible courage- but the humor brings us through it all.

No joke, Rick Riordan is one of my all time heroes. It isn’t just because I love his books- though I do- but because they get people SO excited about reading. They race through his books and love them and they come to the stores wanting more, wanting to know what’s next, and if the next book isn’t out, they want you to point them to something else to read while they wait. As a reader, as a writer, as a bookseller, there’s nothing more amazing than seeing a kid that excited about a book. Teachers are able to use these books in their classrooms to get kids excited about lessons, to get them actually involved and doing things. It sneaks out from the books into the actual mythology, but then it goes into history and architecture and language and so many other things. Parents may complain- usually joking, but not always- about how much books cost, but most of them are so happy to see their kids wanting to read that it’s only a passing complaint. His books turn kids into readers. I still remember the book that made me a reader, and that’s a moment that never, ever goes away. The passion he creates in his readers changes lives.

Throne of Fire, the second book in the Kane Chronicles, out in stores now! Clear an evening or afternoon for this one, because you’re not going to want to put it down.

Until next time~

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