The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Hey Mother Earth Won't You Bring Me Back Down Safely To The Sea (Review: Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan)

Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune
Rick Riordan
Penguin/Hyperion 2011

Welcome to Camp Jupiter, home to Roman legions, Machiavellian seers and talking God-statues (really). While seemingly situated somewhere near San Francisco, it’s actually in Rome – because that is where all roads lead to, obvs. Now meet Frank and Hazel, both outsiders and both carrying their own secrets giving new meaning to the phrases burning at the stake and walking through the valley of the shadow of death, respectively. Then there’s Percy. You probably know more about him than he does. Woken from enforced slumber and recovering from Extreme Wolf Boot Camp, Percy has no idea who he is or why Camp Jupiter and its Gods seem so familiar yet oh, so different…. And a quest?  Really?  Hasn’t he done stuff like this before? One can only hope he figures it out before it’s too late.

Having lost his mother and been dismissed to Camp Jupiter by a grandmother who is no fan of the straight answer, Frank isn’t doing so well. He doesn’t fit in with his colleagues and has a sense of identity that’s pretty rocky and a secret that’s burning him up inside. However, over the course of the book he starts to change, literally and figuratively, emerging as a keen strategist and excellent friend.  His interactions with Hazel are particularly lovely and often very funny and his growing hero-worship when it comes to Percy is oddly touching.

Hazel has to be one of Riordan’s more complex characters with her need to atone for perceived past mistakes being desperately believable. In her own way, she is dealing with a world entirely new to her and her determination is impressive. However, her unwillingness to trust her friends with her guilty secret is a little too reminiscent of Piper in The Lost Hero. She is, luckily, different enough that this is only a minor glitch and one particularly well written aspect of the book is her relationship with Nico  which is both incredibly sad and oddly lonely.

And then there’s Percy. He’s a little discombobulated by events but it’s fascinating to see him through new eyes. This isn’t the Percy readers met in Riordan’s first series – he’s now all growed-up. And a bit scary. Yes, that’s right – Percy Jackson has turned into a young man with a thousand yard stare, wicked fighting skills and absolutely no memory of his past apart from vague images of Annabeth. It’s interesting to see a character previously defined by his loyalty to friends and family have these things taken from him and it makes Percy a far edgier than before.However, his core personality traits – and fatal flaw – are never far away and his friendship and leadership skills are ever-present.

The world that these three find themselves is also darker than that portrayed in previous Riordan titles. Camp Jupiter itself is a far harsher place than Camp Half-Blood and is very much ruled from the top down. Not for them a disgraced, drunken Dionysus but rather the authoritative Reyna and incredibly nasty Octavian (whose penchant for stuffed-animal mutilation is both hilarious and disturbing). Still, they're all being plagued by the same monsters, now unkillable, while Gaia continues to scheme from the depths. Gaia is darkly sinister and her interaction with the three protagonists is filled with gloomy portents of doom. Percy, in particular, seems destined to be her pawn… yet he's also Juno's and therein lies the crux of the story. There are some thrilling set pieces and Riordan's trademark humour is put to excellent use, vital in a novel that peeks into some pretty dark corners.

For years, critics and readers alike have been wittering on about finding the "new Harry Potter" and I really don't understand it as, to my mind, he's been rampaging about for a while now in the form of Percy Jackson - and make no mistake, this is a Percy Jackson novel, "spin off" or not. Percy and Harry have much in common in their characters, not least their central belief that friends and family are of the greatest value. Like the Harry Potter titles, the books in the Heroes of Olympus series (and Percy's titular series prior to that) carry messages regarding the importance of love, courage and loyalty in the face of great hardship, have real pathos and are written with real skill. At the end of The Son of Neptune, readers see worlds start to collide and there are more than a few hints that the next book may not carry happy endings for all involved. Whatever happens, though, we can be assured of a thrilling ride with characters that long ago captured this reader’s heart and imagination.

Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune is available now. Go and buy it for someone for Christmas. Go on.  DO IT.
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