The other night I attended a Christmas dinner for fourteen people, only a handful of whom actually knew each other. We all know how these events play out: awkward introductions where people try to define their lives as concisely as possible so as not to bore the others, and yet verbosely enough that they might find something, anything in common so that they don’t have to resort to talking about the weather. Invariably someone is embarrassingly early, and someone heinously late, and no one’s comfortable enough to be the first person to take a bite of the pre-dinner munchies the host has so painstakingly prepared. And all the while in the background is the bit that’s the truly interesting part of the whole affair: the delicious smells of whatever is slowly cooking in the oven.
Setting up a new series involves many of the same pains: the author is the literary equivalent of the host in charge of introducing everyone, ensuring that mingling ensues, and making sure that at some point everyone moves on from the lounge room and into the dining room where the main event is meant to happen. It’s not an easy task, and it’s an even tougher one when you’re writing not only the first in a series, but the first in a spin-off series. This is the literary equivalent not of bringing together a group of random individuals, but rather of attempting to get two completely separate groups of friends to hang out together rather than in their already established cliques.
The Lost Hero doesn’t do so seamlessly, and from the moment we’re introduced to our new set of heroes there’s both a sense of deja vu and a sense of loss. The three main characters feel so very similar to those in the Percy Jackson series, with Jason in particular notable really only for just how much he recalls bland, everyman Percy. The dynamics between the three are weirdly distant as well, and aren’t helped by Jason’s amnesia and the fact that his friendship with Leo and tentative romance with Piper are basically a construct of a godly “mist”. Although we’re told over and over of Piper’s attraction to Jason, there’s a creepy undertone here—does she only like him because she’s been forced into it by some powerful spell, and is Jason only returning her overtures out of a sense of obligation? Leo, on the other hand, is very much in third wheel territory and really only becomes a part of the narrative thanks to the rotating point-of-view approach. If you take our dinner party scenario above, you’d be fairly accurate if you imagined a whole lot of lengthy silences where everyone stares down at their food and tries to think of something to say. “So…what do you do, Fred?”
The awkward logistics of the dinner party situation also come into play here as well, and it’s painfully obvious from the beginning of the book that the entire thing is a set-up for the much-anticipated arrival of Percy Jackson. Our three heroes arrive at Camp Half-Blood to find Annabeth fretting over the missing Percy, and because we’re so familiar already with Annabeth and Percy’s story, it’s this element that looms large, not the seriously epic quest that Jason and the others head off on. It all feels a little like one of those quest games from the late nineties where you bump into some maiden at a blacksmith’s building and are sent off on a series of unrelated but extraordinarily lengthy click-on-the-monster tasks to kill time until you’re given the thumbs-up to return to the main plot line. Or, to return to my slightly overstretched (overcooked?) dinner party analogy, it’s the equivalent of waiting for that latecomer to show up so that you can finally eat the roast that’s been cooking for two hours than it should have been.
The way that the book unfolds will be immensely familiar to anyone who’s read the Percy Jackson books—think a quest, lots of travelling from place to place, an Inception-like landscape of dreams and dreams-within-dreams, and plenty of random monsters—and to be honest by now it’s starting to get a little dull even with all that non-stop action. It’s witty, sure, and I certainly cracked a grin a few times at Riordan’s zingy humour, but the plot lacks cohesion and purpose, and there’s just so much running about for extraordinarily little payoff. I really think that it’s about time the gods got around to taking out a mobile telephone plan, because that would have shaved a good few hundred pages off this chunky tome. (In addition, why didn’t the thing revealed at the very end of the book crop up in the previous Percy Jackson series? I’m not buying that “mist” excuse at all.)
Where this one does differ from the Percy Jackson series is the introduction of the Roman gods, but with this first book we really only do get a taster of what to come: it’s like being kicked out by your host after only getting through some hors d’oeuvres and a bit of sparkling. The Lost Hero is more of a transitional book than anything, with Jason’s amnesia and affinity for the Roman aspects of the gods and legends that we’re presented with serving as a tool to let Riordan bring his new readers up to speed with what’s going on: Jason feels more like a bridge than anything else, and so, unfortunately, does this book. However, at the book’s end everything is in place for the series to start cruising along without all the messy set-up stuff, and I expect that the second in the series will bring with it both the main course and some decent dinner table conversation (although given the Greeks vs Romans thing going on here, one expects that religion will no doubt be among the topics).
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