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Saturday, July 11, 2009

The stufff Heroes are made of

No not those Heroes. Or these ones (going by this conversation between Ritu and her youngest).

I rather meant the Greek kind. You know, world-famous, heartbreakingly handsome/beautiful (no wait, how many heroines did they talk of?), annoying the gods, stuffed full of derring-doo*...

And apparently, they are half-god and half-human.

I have the lovely Mukta to thank for putting me onto this particular series involving demi-god boy-hero Percy Jackson and a host of his friends and enemies in a world that revolves around Greek Gods, Titans and their minions, all relocated in modern day America.

I've finished the first three books in the series now and to sum it up very shortly... the series gets better with each book — the plot, structure, narrative, setting, characters and general feel of the books seem to get better with each new one.

Of course, if one had to explain what the series was about in about ten seconds (as would happen in conversation) one would immediately reference Harry Potter and say they are similar. But they aren't. The only reason there is a comparision is because Harry Potter happens to be a handy reference to talk about a series that involved children heroes who did wonderful things and lived in a magical world so different from what most of us are used to (and this is where I indulge myself with the thought that there actually are some of us who get to be a part of different magical universes). Harry Potter is a phenomenon. Hence, easy as a popular culture reference to explain something that might be in the same line.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, however, deserves to be a phenomenon and I find it baffling that it isn't quite as popular as it could be. Quite honestly, in some ways this series is far better than Harry Potter in that they do not get cliched or predictable. Harry Potter was certainly imaginative, trouble is, latin names and incantations and the supposed twists in the end are far too much of a trademark to seem novel after a point. Not so with Percy Jackson. Having to work with Greek legends of yore and still fashion something that is gripping, not cliched and keeps the reader guessing is something of a stellar effot. And Rick Riordan has nailed it. There was always the danger of sounding rather patronising and the series turning into a sort of re-hash of who's who in Greek mythology, but he's managed to steer clear of these dangers and write books that are entertaining and interesting enough to be read by adults even if they were written for kids between 9 and 11.

The series starts off with The Lightning Thief where we are introduced to Percy Jackson, supposed delinquent who has been kicked out of all the schools he has attended and enrolls in a new one every year. We see him come to terms with his demi-god status, fight monsters and almost get killed, find a haven in Camp Half-Blood, grapple with the ideas of immortality, super-powers, training in special survival skills and take on a quest that is of Olympian magnitude and puts him in an audience with various gods in their modern day avtars. Much finger-biting action except the finger-biting is interrupted by explosions of laughter thanks to the numerous well places wisecracks. I mean, seriously, who addresses a Minotaur as 'ground beef' while fighting it to death?

As the first book in the series, there was much explanation required about various things. Why Olympus was now located in America, for example. The basic premise of that was that the gods have been responsible for the progress of mankind through centruries and therefore have moved with the times as humankind flourished in different eras. In other words, the gods have sustained Western Civilisation and are based in America now as it is the centre of western civilisation. Personally, I had issues with this explanation because that discounts the rest of the world that doesn't belong to the 'west'.** Coming from a land that was around before even the idea of America or the West came up, a land that has a vast and rich heritage of its own, one that rivals Greek civilisation and mythology... it's natural that I take exception to this monopolising by the 'West'. Also, I thought there was a rather distinct tone of 'America is the greatest country on the planet that the universe has ever seen' and while I understand that an author may write whatever they wish, I do think it's important to be a little more understanding of things outside your own cultural sphere when you are addressing an audience that is global.

There is this one instance in the book where Percy asks a girl at camp who her father is, assuming that her father too is a god, as his is. She replies "He's a professor at so-and-so university. What, you thought only male gods were capable of seducing mortals? How sexist is that?". I thought it was laudable, this idea if not assuming that men have the upper hand and putting it across in a book meant for children. This theme of gender equality is rather noticeable throuhought the series***. Sure it revolves around one seemingly central male character but it has two female leads who each are central to the narrative..

Other things that are dealth with very convincingly are the issue of how mortals do not seem to see gods and demi-gods or their activities (they are under the power of the Mist and essentially see exactly what they wish to see), what are the limitations of heroes/heroines/demi-gods/goddesses (they are human and god so they may be destroyed by weapons on both sides), the idea of life after death in the underworl (and this is really worth a read) and loose philosophical musings which make a lot of sense.

The Lightning Thief was well written but it felt a little unsure as if the author were testing the waters and was trying rather hard to convince readers. Specially when it starts off saying 'Don't believe me if you want to but everything I say is true and there really is such a world'. He eases up further on and really gets into the story-telling so it's not so bad... and as the books roll on, the writing is effortless, seamless, confident and very riveting.

Book two, The Sea of Monsters has Percy going off to help an old friend who is in trouble which ties in with another doomsday prediction for Olympus and the gods, while dealing with a brother who has been sprung upon him and more of the meet and greet/meet and duel with different monsters and gods.

Book three, The Titan's Curse sends Percy and his friends off on a quest to stop the Titans from overtaking Olympus, all the while being treated with suspicion because the prophecy revolves around one of them betraying Olympus.

Everytime a god is introduced in the book, the description of them and their mannerisms are just so endearing. Apollo for instance is shown as a teenager who drives a Maserati Spyder and is constantly getting up the back of his avowed maiden sister Artemis (who prefers to appear as a 12 year old girl), specially by teasing her huntresses. Aphrodite is shown to be indescribably beautiful, actually being able to manipulate love as a physical power. The gods and godesses wear modern clothes, talk slang soemtimes and are cool. Mythical creatures such as Hippocampi, Pegasi and Ophiotauri crop up and are just as delightfully sketched.

I am not sure if these books would interest and entertain anyone who has read Greek mythology but they have spurred me to read up on Greek mythology. My only gripe with the author is that the books seem too short, even though it it took me the better part of three hours to finish one. However, there doesn't seem to be a danger of the series ending quickly due to lack of plot and continuation. Which is far more than can be said of series on similar themes anywhere else.

*That is a funny word, seeing as how 'doo' is generally associated with err... crap. Maybe it was supposed to mean 'being brave enough to take risks but still crapping their pants'.

** I have issues using the term 'the West' because, as one rather prolific teacher on my media course, who really influenced my understanding of the media, explained: It isn't quite the right term. Who really did term it the West and why does the geographical position and consequent terming by this person influence the thinking of the rest of civilisation, irrespective of their respective geographial locations, specially when it is so obviously wrong?

***Maybe it's due to the fact that Greek mythology itself has never been about brushing things under the carpet or treating female characters as secondary. Goddesses such as Athena, Artemis and Aphrodite are as much about power as gods such as Apollo, Area and Hermes. Greek goddesses are not relegated to the task of looking pretty and being brainless. They DO stuff. Which includes pursuing men and having affairs if that's what they want. And none of that is treated as shameful. Aphrodite's dallying with Ares while being married to Hephaestus was an open secret. Hepheastus was mad of course and did all in his power to mock his wife and her lover but nowhere does Aphrodite or any other goddess get burdened with having to be virtuous, docile, meek, submissive or any of the other things that are so typical of female characters in Indian mythology. Really. We have goddesses of wealth and knowledge and so on and while that is good, the power to create and destroy still rests with male gods (ironic considering reproduction is a function that is largely the province of a woman) while the women have to put up with being pure and beautiful because they are female. If they are female and they get up to tricks because they are smart, they are reagarded as vamps who must be done away with. When goddesses themselves are portrayed thus, is it any wonder that female characters in epics are portrayed as delicate beings who cannot take things into their control, are simply pretty and about as useful and furniture? Any wonder that the Bharatiya Nari is expected to conform to these standards? You know what, after all, I think I can actually see why 'the West' is more progressive than the subcontinent.


  1. Is there an e mail to contact you? Pliss to be giving :)

  2. HP is a quest-based fantasy series. Those have a natural endpoint (end of Voldemort in this case), and you need another quest to revive the series. Percy Jackson seems to be fantasy series without a specific quest, right?

    BTW, when you talk about West and female characters, you are talking about greko-roman religions, which are not practised now. Technically, The West (christians) don't have a female deity, just one God. Hinduism on the other hand has a concept of Shakti, the female of half of male divine, and all the goddesses are versions/incarnations/faces of Shakti. Although, we do have a paucity of goddesses who interfere in human affairs, and subsequent lack of independent female characters in mythology.

    Wow, that was a long comment...

  3. i am not sure whether our goddesses were meek/weak or that's how they began to be perceived. could have been a conspiracy - to put them on pedestals but simultaneously run them to the ground. i also don't know how empowered greek women are, for that matter.
    from what i perceive of the li'l mythology i've read is that every goddess has a durga/kaali in her. kinda like 2 sides of a coin thing.
    so while she can be nurturing... she can also destroy. it may not be her forte, but she'll do it! ;)

    here, they don't have a female god. it's god and the son of god that they worship.. no?

    was my comment too off-topic?! :D

  4. p.s.: when u said heroes, i remembered the sunny paaji-salman one! sigh.

  5. Loca: left it on your space... waiting to hear from you :)

    Dee: Amused, eh? :)

    Amey: Are you saying it is unfair to compare the two on that basis?

    Haan Greco-Roman religious symbols aren't really valid now, and yes Christinaity doesn't have a female deity... I was going by what the author wrote, he ignored both those facts so...

    Also, yes we do have Shakti but if you see, it is still a male deity, Brahma who gets credited with creation...

    I might be getting annoying with this nari mukti morcha I raise every other day... jeez!

    And long comments are most welcome here... we like the sound of voices :D

    Catty: Dude, kabhi toh bollywood ko side karo!!!

    And okay, now we're rally going to go off-topic: The whole god/goddess thing, no one really can say they existed or not but for the sake of discussion, since we're discussing greek mythology as if it existed, let us assume then that Indian mythology exited too... characters I mean. It's just that, since it's people who are responsible for how they're portrayed, goddesses in India really do come across as meek through their portrayal while Greek goddess seem a lot more ... bold (for lack of a better word). They may have two sides but rarely do we see every goddess showing he other side and this is where I start questioning things. How is it that demons and rakshasas seem to be felled by male deities mostly. And even if female deities do things like this, they don't seem to be revered as much as the male ones. I mean, there is Chamundi who slayed Mahishasura but I for one have never heard her spoken of the way Krishna is spoken of. we do not have stories of the childhoods of goddesses... you can't help but notice the lack, can you?

  6. very amused..

    sometimes, I am in an important appraisal kind of meeting and I think of ur nero stories and guffaw out.. When my manager looks at me, I have to pretend like I have a coughing fit..

    True story!

  7. Hey, thanks for the link love.

    I need to add this series to my repertoire of fantasy. I love the parallel world

  8. Well, apart from magic and child "stars", the stories are different, right? Plus, what I was saying is that HP by nature has limited storyline (and age), while Percy Jackson can continue even in his old age. :D

    Err, you won't get childhood stories for Chamundi like Krishna because Chamundi was "created" for killing Mahishasur (already adult), while Krishna is a human incarnation of Vishnu.

  9. Dee: Hahahaha... well you should thank Amey and Rayshma for that... creative minds, those two!

    Phoenixritu: Pleasure is all mine! Do pick up the series... it's good!!

    Amey: Well... yeah they are different that way I guess...

    I was going to say wrong example regarding Chamundi but I realised it's exactly what I am talking about. Yet another woman (even if it's a goddess) created for the purpose of something... not somebody who has power and uses it time and again because she can, because she wants to. The thing is mythology in India seems to be stuffed full of so supposed cirtuous characters but examine closely and they seem to fall like a house of cards... it gets me because somwhere all this blind worshipping and reverence seems false, like we're fooling ourselves. Oh man, I've turned a book review into a theological discussion now. Gah

  10. lol @Lavida's comment!


  11. So, I read your comment, and get ready and go for the midnight showing of HBP. Guess which teaser trailer is playing there?

    Chris Columbus is directing that movie, btw.

  12. OMG!!!! NO WAYYYY!!!! *hyper-excited shriek!*

    For a sec I was going to be a joker and ask 'Nero'? Then I thought it might be 'Prey' since we discussed that... but then IMDB showed nothing for Prey so I looked up Chris Columbus and viola!! Thank you SO much for telling me :D I can't wait to see it!!!

  13. Nobody, not even Chris Columbus, cannot take away "Nero" from me. I will be the one to helm that project (Columbus, helm, see what I did there?)

    It was so funny to watch the teaser trailer when we have been talking about it for last 2-3 weeks. Looks like I need to start reading the books.

  14. Hahahaha, 'wit without measure is man's greatest treasure' ;) Nero is all yours!

    Do take up the books... they're a lot of fun!

    Enjoy HP ... I prolly won't see it. Review it btw.