Book Review: The Mark of Athena, by Rick Riordan

October 10, 2012 at 10:25 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Note: this is the third book in the Heroes of Olympus series, the sequel series to Percy Jackson and the Olympians. If you have not read the previous seven books, there will be not only confusion but abundant spoilers below

Percy and Annabeth have been reunited, Percy and Jason have their memories back, and the Greek and Roman demigods seem like they might be able to work out an alliance to face the Great Prophecy and the continuing struggle against Gaea and her children. Great, right? Except…well, Leo’s not sure how it happened, but let’s just say a lot when wrong really fast, and now Leo, Percy, Annabeth, Jason, Piper, Hazel, and Frank are on the run on the Argo II with several desperate missions and not a lot of time in which to accomplish them. With trademark humor, sympathy, and action, Riordan takes us on a whirlwind ride.

I make no secret of the fact that I love Riordan’s books. They’re smart, they’re interesting, they’re funny as anything, they’re exciting, and yet we also get an amazing blend of personal obstacles, sorrow, and growth, something that makes them uncommon and wonderful. These stories have a bit of everything, but they’re brought together so neatly that it doesn’t feel overcrowded- quite a feat for a story that started in single-narrator first person and now has an entire stable of narrators in third.

Our narrators for this leg of the journey are Annabeth, Percy, Piper, and Leo, each claiming four chapters at a time. It’s a big book, which make worry some of the younger readers who haven’t hit Harry Potter yet, but the pace snaps so well that you’re pretty far in before you look up to remember there’s a mundane world around you. This is the first time we’ve been inside Annabeth’s head, and though I already really liked her as a character, this time she wins ALL THE LOVE. Well, most of the love; I still have some for the others, too. But Annabeth! We get to see so many different facets of a wonderfully complicated character. We see her as Percy’s Wise Girl, someone intelligent and resourceful, someone willing to dig down and do research, someone ready with the history of a thing to understand how to work with it or beat it down, as the situation calls for. We see her as someone who’s been an important aspect of leadership and influence in Camp Half-Blood since well before Percy got there, a leader in her own right who’s able to make use of widely varying skill sets and personalities- even when two of those personalities are rather used to being the leaders themselves. We see her as a girlfriend, which is painfully sweet and funny (judo flip, anyone?). Perhaps my favorite aspect? We see Annabeth as daughter. She’s loyal, rebellious, proud, aware of faults, frustrated, loving…in short, all the contradictions that perfectly make up most mother-daughter relationships. And I’m sorry, but her wanting to find her mother’s sacred owl and punch it in the face wins her EVERYTHING EVER. She’s an amazing character and I’m so glad we get to see more of the world inside her head.

Another very fun, and compelling, aspect of this book is the fact that both Percy and Jason are accustomed to leadership. We see the struggle of them working together, of having to acknowledge someone as an equal in experience and strength and talents. We also see two cocky teenage boys butting heads, which is hysterical. More than that, though, something we see both of them struggle with again and again, is the helplessness that comes with not being the ones to save the day. They’re not always the ones with the great ideas, they’re not always the ones with the needed talent. Sometimes, they’re the ones that need to be rescued. That’s a humbling and terrifying moment for people like them, and we get to see that, both in the struggles they deal with personally and in what they’re willing to confide to the girls they love. There’s also a rather striking difference between the two in leadership. Jason was expected to be a leader. He’s a son of Jupiter, so great things and leadership skills were always expected of him. He was placed in a position of authority because it was expected that was where he should be. Percy earned his leadership. He wasn’t a driving force within the camp at first, but through years of quests and obstacles, through strong leadership through the war, he earned his place. He doesn’t expect anyone to kowtow to him, but he leads with the steady confidence of someone who’s walked through every level of the ranks. He has a knack for other people’s skills, for how to use other people to the best advantage- even if that means he’s not The Hero. Jason still tends to focus on what he can do.

I love that in this book we get to see more of the reality of the schism between the Greek and Roman Aspects. We’ve been told about, and we see it in bits and pieces through the first two books, but we see it in a serious way here through two gods. The transition from Athena to Minerva is heartbreaking at best, frequently infuriating, and somewhat painfully appropriate for a lot of the struggles going on in our culture today. What makes it agony is the fact that she’s aware, in some sense, of what’s been lost, of what’s been taken from her. She knows she’s not complete and that she’s missing something vital and immense. And then there’s Mister D- or, er, Mister B. Bacchus and Dionysus share many qualities, but like the other gods, they reflect the differences in their cultures, as well as the varying attitudes those cultures espouse. Mister D is all snarl and bark, but the only time we actually see him bite is at the enemy. Mister B, while seeming laid-back, also comes off as a lot more dangerous. While D’s maenads are terrifying, it’s B’s full embrace of the bread-and-circuses way of life that makes your skin crawl.

Although, Coke and Pepsi? Brilliant.

As much as I loved this book, it left me with two worries. Well, one worry and one wish. The worry is that, while it’s great to be aging the kids up, and aging up the things they’re dealing with on an appropriate parallel, this book is very, very couple-centered. There’s Percy and Annabeth and all of their relationship stuff, there’s Jason and Piper and all their relationship stuff, and there’s Hazel and Frank and Leo and any number of obstacles and concerns tying the three of them together. For the older readers, yay! A lot of us really LIKE the couple-y things. I saw an absolutely phenomenal fan-poster that said “Keep Calm and Shut Up, Seaweed Brain”, which is just fantastic. But. A lot of the kids coming to this series are younger readers who are swallowing the first set in a gulp, and may not be ready for all the internal angst that comes with hormones. And there’s a second part to that- I hate the notion of boy books and girl books, hate the fact that there are parents and booksellers and teachers who are actively promoting that kind of label and telling children they can’t read a book because “it’s for the other gender”. Hate it. The fact, however, remains that there are many adults who believe this, and many children whose reading habits are limited by it. For those boys who are told by adults or friends that it’s not okay to read romance books, this may lose some of them for the series. The wish has to do with the narration. My friend Margaret and I were bouncing theories back and forth as to who we’ll see as narrators in the next one, and it made me realize that all four of our narrators in this one were Greek. The first two books were balanced, The Lost Hero with two Greeks and a confused Roman adopted by the Greeks, Son of Neptune with two Romans and a confused Greek adopted by the Romans. Or, as my brother put it, Jason and Percy are the Praetor Traitor Twins (say that three times fast). I would have wished for more of a balance in the narrative duties of this book, that the narrative duties balanced the very real need for balance among the seven demigods on the task. It’s a hard wish, though, because I really did love the narratives we got.

This is a fantastic new installment in the series, keeping the action and adventure and truly-snort-worthy one-liners flying so fast you don’t even notice how many pages you’re turning, but it also gives some fantastic depth to characters we come to love even more and an ending that will make you curse the year’s wait to The House of Hades. Definitely not to be missed. It’s smart with mythology, with history, with the innate struggles that come with the cusp of greatness, and all the trials and triumphs that come with simply being a teenager.

Until next time~

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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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Book Review: The Goddess Test, by Aimee Carter

April 10, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Kate Winters doesn’t want to spend her eighteenth birthday driving to a tiny Michigan town so her mother can die where she grew up. She doesn’t want to go back to high school and leave her mother in the care of a stranger during the day. And she doesn’t particularly want to make friends. Somehow, though, she ends up doing all of it, mostly because it’s what her mother wants. Her mother is dying. Has been dying. She’s held on for four years, longer than anyone thought she could, but now she truly is dying.
But then, Kate meets Henry, a young man from the strange estate on the edge of town, and he offers her the one thing no one has even been able to guarantee: a chance to say goodbye. The promise that before her mother dies, she’ll be able to say goodbye. Henry and the manor are neither what they seem to be, and what happens over the long autumn and winter will not just change the rest of Kate’s life: they’ll change the rest of forever.

I’m a sucker for Greek mythology. I always have been, probably always will be, and I jump on just about any new addition on it, so when I saw mentions of Hades and Persephone, I was bouncing up and down with excitement, couldn’t wait for it to come out.

Now having read it… I don’t in any way mean to imply that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, but I wonder if I didn’t get myself so worked up over it that it couldn’t ever do less than let me down a little. The myth of Hades and Persephone is, I think, one of the most intriguing of the classical stories, and open to such an array of interpretations. Their story here is intriguing, and sad- no, not just sad, profoundly depressing because it carries such a weight across so many centuries. Henry is such a complicated character, and yet he’s perhaps the most straightforward, the easiest to understand, and the one whose motivations are the more clear. His loyalty is staggering, as painful as it is commendable, and his hope is so fragile, so ephemeral, that each time we see it we want to somehow shelter it, as if there was any way we could. His grief is a living thing, a weight that hovers in the halls of the manor and shades every word. Sometimes the grief edges into rage, sometimes into despair, but even when he seems his most relaxed the grief is still a ghost at his shoulders, which is just so lovely.

Eden Manor, not just the beauty of it but the fact of it reminds me of so many things I can’t say without fear of spoilers. The way it exists is a beautiful thing in and of itself, even separated from the story and the things that take place there. Setting so rarely gets to come alive and become a character in its own right, but the manor does just that. It is as essential as any person we meet, perhaps even more so than some, and that’s a rare thing.

I love how consumed Kate is by her mother’s illness, how it overwrites every thought, every action, every moment until she’s just an extension of her mother’s cancer. It’s a very real thing, especially in a terminal sickness that holds on for so long. It isn’t just the patient that’s consumed by it, but those closest to them as well. Kate’s entire life, her whole world, is narrowed down to the single point of light that is her mother. She has no life outside of that, and I really liked that we get to see that. My mother is a nurse, and has been for some years a Hospice nurse, so seeing the truth of that reality- a reality of exhaustion and vomit and weakness- is amazing, and very brave. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to work day by day at someone’s bedside, terrified each moment will be the last and unsure if it’s hope or selfishness to believe they’ll make it another day, another week, another birthday, another Christmas, any milestone that can be clutched against the fear and the pain. It takes a very different kind of strength, and perhaps a more difficult one, to know when to let that go. To recognize the moment when you have to take your own life back, and find the courage to figure out what that life even is anymore. To see that in Kate was extremely compelling, and that more than anything else is what kept me turning page after page.

There was a lot in this book to love, but there was also a lot that left me wondering if I’d somehow missed several very important things along the way. Kate’s friendship with Ava is baffling on nearly every level. I don’t want to give twists away, but Ava’s constant selfishness and unthinking cruelty make her an odd choice of companion and friend. To cling to the familiar- even if it’s not the person you would have chosen- is natural, but it feels forced, like Ava is only ever an albatross at Kate’s neck. She serves a purpose- she serves several purposes, as a matter of fact- but she also serves to muddy things. Given what Kate has gone through in the past four years, given the person she has become as a result of that, it doesn’t work for me that she would even tolerate Ava at some points.

To mention the tests doesn’t give much away- they’re in the title, after all- but the nature of them was a little disconcerting. Jarring, I suppose, would be the best word for it. Kate is told upfront that there will be tests, that she may or may not know them before/during/after, but that she must pass all of them. She worries about them constantly, frets at them, and yet doesn’t recognize most of them. It leaves me with endless tension and no pay-off. As the narrator, she’s limited by her own knowledge, but I would have wished to see indications of the tests in those around her, those who do know what the tests are and how they’re played out. We get a lot of worrying and a lot of time passing, but we don’t really get to use those tests as intervals, or more importantly, as steps. The nature of the tests also startled me; it seemed strangely out of place, like we were somehow being asked to blend two very different mythologies.

And here’s where I start dancing around things in the attempt to be honest without spoiling things. The ending was…I’m not really sure what the ending was. I was expecting both more and less, each in different ways, so it left me very confused about the direction the next book will go. Generally speaking, each book in a series leads to the next one. Obviously there are exceptions, especially an ongoing series that will end up with fifteen, twenty, twenty-six books in it, but even where the first books don’t end in cliffhangers, there’s something to pull you directly to the next one.

And then promptly make you spend the next six to twelve months swearing like a sailor because you have to wait.

I didn’t have that here. I’ll definitely read the next one, because despite everything that bothered me I really did enjoy it, but it’s not what I’ll be jumping up and down for, it’s not the one that I’ll be arguing over with other people trying to guess what happens, because I have absolutely no idea. There is nothing to indicate what’s going to drive the second book, and that, more than anything else I think, is what bothers me. As much as I hate the waiting, there’s pleasure in it too, having that sense of anticipation so that the relief of FINALLY having the book in your hands is as much a joy as the reading of it. I want that from my books.

All things said and done, this book is an intriguing view of Hades and Persephone, and some of the characters are so real- and compelling- that I look forward to coming back to them. Are that pieces that bother me? Yes, absolutely. But not enough that I don’t want to continue reading the series. I’m still caught- the frustration of not being able to wonder where it’s going is only so sharp because I want to know.

The Goddess Test, by Aimee Carter, available April 19th, 2011.

Until next time~

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