Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Reflections on Riordan

Today was the US release date of House of Hades, the fourth book in Rick Riordan's Heroes of Olympus series.

Some backstory: HoO is the sequel series to the wildly popular and awesome Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which details the adventures of Percy Jackson, a misfit kid who's been kicked out of every school he's been in, who turns out to be the son of Poseidon and goes around with other demigods saving the world, snarking all the way.

The series' target audience is middle grade readers, which did not deter Lieutenant Sarcasm and me from (partially) running to the bookstore today to get HoH. I have asked LS not to give it to me until after all my EA stuff gets turned in. I want to be able to enjoy the book without feeling any guilt over impending deadlines.

I've already read the first few pages - as in the pages before the story begins. Here are some of the thoughts they generated, in no particular order:

The list of middle grade books he’s written impressed me. Five Percy Jackson books, three Kane Chronicles books, the Demigod Files (companion to PJ), and the first four of the Heroes of Olympus. Thirteen books, all of considerable length, almost all (I can’t speak to TDF, which I haven’t read, and The Lost Hero didn’t win me over as much as the other books) of high quality.

The books also show a narrow, deep focus: modern kids who find out that they’re connected to the mythology of an ancient civilization, which isn’t actually myth. Speaking as a reader, I’m content with this model; as a writer, I admire that Riordan has been able to write thirteen books in the same premise without getting stale.

All the same, I wonder if I’d want a portfolio of works so circumscribed. I know Riordan wrote different kinds of books for adults, but I’m only familiar with his middle grade stuff. The Percy Jackson characters show up in Heroes of Olympus, and while as a reader I could spent any amount of time with them I know it might be different for the author.

So I guess what I wonder, fundamentally, is how Riordan has managed to keep his work and his characters interesting and compelling to him over the past years that he’s been living with them in his mental space. Do I sound overly familiar in the way I’m speaking of him?

Tangent: are there fundamentally different ways in which different writers experience their stories? (to be investigated later)

Riordan’s portfolio of books - I know there’s a better technical term, but I can’t remember it at the moment - his bibliography? - is like a gelato shop. There are different flavors (Egyptian, Greek, Greco-Roman) but it’s the same kind of product. Not that readers (me) mind.

I wonder if he ever wishes he could expand his product line? I mean, I’m sure that he deeply enjoys writing this kind of story - as pigeonholes go, mythology is a rather rich one - but I wonder if there is some other question or theme or subject that he’d like to excavate.

My Lit teacher’s phrase - “compelling question to which you devote your life” (paraphrased) - has been sticking in my mind. Theme and variation...we were reflecting on in-class essays today, and I wrote that the best essays I write under pressure are the ones in which I seize on a small piece of the work and excavate it fully. Like exploring a side street in depth on foot, instead of zooming over a city in a jet.

I’ve also been contemplating why Riordan’s books are so fantastically popular. Obviously, they’re well-written and funny and have characters you can fall in love with and high-action plot lines. But which of those things is the most important?

For me, it’s the characters. I’d follow Annabeth anywhere, especially after her awesomeness in Mark of Athena. Even to Tartarus.

So how did Riordan make the characters come alive so well? Five books of character development in PJ gave Percy and Annabeth a huge advantage over the new characters in Heroes of Olympus (though Hazel has charmed me completely). But I found them compelling even in the first series: why?

I think - provisional theory, and I should be taking a whole post to explore this more in depth - I can identify one major component: their fatal flaws, and how those fatal flaws are directly tied to their strengths.

Moving on for time’s sake (I have a gov essay to work on once I finish this post), another big draw of the books is the mythology. When a book is based on something else - programmatic rather than absolute, as my band director would say - you come in with context built in, so it’s easier to find handles into the work. It’s fun to see how ancient myths get reinterpreted in modern setting: after all, isn’t that what people have always done with compelling stories? Made them relevant.

The mythology is also a big plus because people like to learn things. I won’t claim that desire to learn is the main reason people read the books - but rather because the books make learning mythology painless. Reading the books, you get exposure to some compelling stories that have lasted over millennia, so there’s substance embedded in the books.

What Riordan has done that elevates his books over other myth retellings or modern-kid-comes-into-contact-with-ancient-myth stories is that the myths are not just window dressing. The gods don’t read as gimmicks (like, oh, hey, it’s Zeus the womanizer! Poseidon is dressed like a surfer! Hera talks like a Southern belle! [examples not drawn from any particular book]); they read as humans who are somehow super powerful, which is more true to how the myths were.

Riordan is snarky, not glib. That, I think, is the difference. Snark is subversive, looking askance at something that thinks too highly of itself. Glib, to me, is fundamentally dishonest - making light of even important things. It’s dismissive, not questioning.

Riordan’s books investigate; they explore. Reading them you can tell he loves his subject matter, that it fascinates him, and that kind of attitude in an author gives the reader the freedom to be curious, childlike, and follow their sense of wonder into the world of the story.

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