Percy Jackson: A Book Review in Which I Disagree With Everyone Else Who Has a Blog

My ten year old son loves to read. And though he enjoys the books recommended by our classical curriculum, sometimes he yearns to read something a bit more modern and edgy . . .

or perhaps something a bit more ancient and Greek. Somewhere, he heard about The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) and asked if he could get it at the library. I looked at a couple of reviews online, and people generally raved about it. Catholic people.

I figured it would be fine. I did, however, require that Jack read an actual Book of Greek Myths before he read the "fractured" version. (This is a pet peeve of mine, children reading books riffing off of classic tales about which they know nothing.)

So he started it, and, as I usually like to know for myself what my kids are reading, so did I. He was ahead of me, which is poor planning on my part. But I was pleased when he came to me with an early concern about the book. There were extramarital liaisons. We discussed that those are certainly a theme of the original myths and that he should keep a discerning eye open to make sure that immoral acts are described non-graphically and shown accompanied by realistic consequences.

I tried to catch up with him, but I'm sorry to say I didn't and he finished before I did. He said he enjoyed the action and comedy, but was worried I would think that it wasn't a good book for kids.

He was right.

I should take a quick moment here to say that I LOVE middle-grade books and fantasy books and books in general. I have often found myself in the position of defending popular books that other Catholics worry about. I had every intention of liking and recommending this book.

Also, I'm assuming here that you are reading this review because your child wants to read this book but you don't want to, so there will be major spoilers.

I didn't like this book because of its relativistic approach to religion, its matter-of-fact presentation of extra-marital relationships, and its celebration of Percy's mother's murder of her husband.

I am not concerned that reading this book would tempt my children to become polytheists. But Mr. Riordan seems to be trying to avoid conflicts with Christianity by having one of his characters separate the notion of a "big G" God from the "little g" gods. It isn't particularly convincing. Much more troubling is when Percy sees a scamming televangelist being escorted to the worst part of Hades. When he questions whether the man wouldn't be expecting a different type of hell, he is told that people just see whatever they believed in when they were alive. This is morally relativistic new age baloney, and I won't have it.

I found this image after I wrote that.
Apparently Hephaestus is a character in Wonder Woman comics?

Also, it would be hard to avoid references to sexual relationships outside marriage in a tale about Greek myths. But in the original myths we see the pain and suffering and inconvenience to gods and men that these dalliances cause. Not so in this book. Percy's father says Percy's mom is a "queen among women" and she is presented as strong-minded for hooking up with a married god but then refusing his offers of help and instead living unhappily with a smelly, poker-playing new husband.

Percy and his little friends are also sent on a quest into the love nest of two cheating gods (who aren't there). Super creepy and inappropriate. And again, zero consequences.

In the original myth, Aphrodite is married by her father Zeus to the crippled blacksmith Hephaestus, despite her love for Ares. She continues having relations with Ares after having consummated her relationship with her husband. Hephaestus sets a trap and catches the lovers in the act. His agony and the shame of the entrapped lovers are a big part of the story (although the assembled gods find it all rather amusing). NONE of that happens in the book. Hephaestus's trap is foiled by Percy and we can assume that the lovers are free to carry on.

This is the least unclothed Aphrodite ever gets,
at Wikimedia Commons anyway.

Finally (although there's more), at the end of the book, we learn that Percy's mother has murdered her lout of a husband with the severed head of Medusa that Percy has left for her. Just in case she wanted to murder her husband. And it turned out she did.

But Percy suspects that he had beaten her. And the husband smelled really bad and was always quite unpleasant to Percy. So we are expected to rejoice that although she claimed that she didn't have the courage to leave him, she has somehow found it in herself to murder him, then sell his statue (which would be his corpse, right?) to a museum for a huge amount of money. What fun!

I also had all kinds of issues with the writing. I was annoyed by the undertones of "humans are hurting the gods by pollution and lack of open spaces". I didn't believe the oft-repeated idea that Percy's ADHD and dyslexia are really just signs that he was a demigod the whole time. (I have since learned that the author included that aspect for his own son, but still, it was bothersome to me as I was reading.) I was very frustrated by the 24-style "flip" of a character from super-good to full-on villain with almost no explanation or foreshadowing. I hated that the whole cross-country adventure of our hero was necessary because he can't fly on airplanes because he is the son of Poseidon and the sky belongs to Zeus, so he just can't fly. Fine. Got it. Then, he flies home. He's worried, but he does it. And Zeus doesn't kill him. That's not okay with me. You can set up the rules of your world, but then you have to follow them.

I guess that's the bottom line for me. If I had connected with the writing more I would probably be trying to figure out a way for you to just discuss with your kids the problem areas of the book. That's what I did with my son. But I just don't think the positives even come close to outweighing the negatives on this one.

If your kids have already read it or you plan to let them, you may wish to ask these questions:

  1. What are the consequences for the people and gods in this book who are involved in affairs outside of marriage? For instance Percy's mother, Poseidon, Ares, Zeus? What about all the children at Camp Half-Blood, none of whom has an intact family? Do you think this is a good situation for them?
  2. What happens when we die? Is it possible, as we read in this book that "Humans see what they want to see" after they die? Would this be a dangerous thing to believe?
  3. Poseidon tells his son Percy "I am sorry you were born" and calls him an "unforgivable mistake." Do we believe that there are children who should never have been born? Does OUR God ever make mistakes?
  4. Percy's mother thinks that her life wouldn't "mean anything" if she let someone take care of her. Do you agree with this?
  5. Percy decides not to kill his stepfather. But he leaves the head of Medusa for his mother, and she uses it to kill her husband, since he is very mean and beats her. Is it morally acceptable to kill someone under these circumstances? Did Percy help his mother by leaving this weapon for her?

If you don't want to have these discussions with your child, you should really skip this book.

So, what to read instead? I have a stack of newer YA and middle-grade fantasy books that I'm going to read for Jack (and for you guys). But since I haven't gotten to those yet, I'm going to have to go with Chronicles of Narnia and the Redwall Series. They are a similar reading level, and are full of quests and adventures that boys love. They also have a beautiful moral message, and a congruous fantasy world that doesn't break its own rules.

Update: You might also be interested in this post Encouraging Discerning Readership in Children (and an update to my Percy Jackson review)

Update #2: I had an interesting discussion with Charlotte from Waltzing Matilda in the comments of her review of this book. I think she may have changed my mind about whether Percy's Mom killed Smelly Gabe, or if it wouldn't be more accurate to understand that she has imprisoned him eternally. I still don't love this book. I still do think it can be read with guidance, but wonder why you would bother. But I really do think Charlotte has a point on the murdering thing.