Many moons ago I bought my first computer and an iPod Nano. Seriously unimpressive today, but at that time, the best thing Apple had to offer. After listening to music for months, I figured out how to put movies onto that iPod.
Well, the floodgates were open.
One of the first movies I saw was Percy Jackson. I hadn’t read the books. I knew nothing about it, but just thought it looked cool and like "the next Harry Potter".
And I liked that movie.
Sure, I can see why book readers would hate it. And I didn’t like it so much that I ever watched the second movie. But I thought it was an interesting idea that was executed well enough.
Since then, the name Percy Jackson has always lingered in the back of my mind, but never with so much insistence that I actually made time to read the books. (Besides, mostly reading fantasy has the nasty side effect of being stuck with one 600 page book for months at a time. I read a lot of pages per year, not necessarily books :p)
That is, until I saw the Netflix announcement. They were making a Percy Jackson series! Which, for book series, is almost always a way better option than a feature film. In fact, the release date was this year and there was already a teaser!
It convinced me to change my reading list and put the Percy Jackson books at the top. The original pentalogy, that is. Not the spin-offs or related series.
Also not including that one unexpected 6th book that released in September right after I finished writing this review. It felt too disconnected from the original books to tack onto this review, but I might write a separate one for it later.
What did I think of it? I’ll give it a 7.5 out of 10, which I’ll generously round to 8 stars.
A series that is well-written, imaginative, unhinged, and unexpectedly funny. It shows how the seeds of a good idea can blossom into a world that feels endlessly interesting to explore. It’s also, however, extremely repetitive and often lacking in any aspect besides its adventures and quests.
This review is spoiler free, until the spoiler threshold all the way at the end. (After which I’ll make some comments for which I need spoilers.)
When reading the review below, remember that I am a 26-year old male author. Not exactly the target audience.
Also remember I am an author. I’ll be way more critical and analyse flaws with more depth, which may seem like nagging or like I absolutely hated the stories. But that’s simply because there isn’t much use to repeating all the good things and compliments to this series after stating them once.
Once the Netflix series is out, I’ll try to watch and review that as well. I’m very eager to see how they’ll portray all these aspects and stay true to the books (hopefully). But I make no promises, as time flies by and I’m usually 6 months late to any films/series party.
What’s the idea?
Percy Jackson discovers that he is a demigod. He does so when a monster comes after him and tries to kill him, which he soon learns is basically the daily life of a demigod.
This event snowballs into a visit to Half-Blood Camp (where most demigods live and train), learning more about the Gods (and this world where they actually exist), and soon a quest.
The first book is about fulfilling that quest, after which a more global impending danger is introduced. But the summary above basically holds true for every book:
- A new part of the world is introduced
- Because there’s a problem there
- So the heroes go on a quest
- Which may or may not succeed by the end
Over time, you get snippets about the Gods, their history, their magic, and other parts of this world. The group of characters from Camp Half-Blood slowly grows. That’s also how many famous Greek gods, heroes and myths are introduced.
But that’s never the focus. The focus of these stories is on action and adventure, every single chapter, again and again, as they try to be heroes and fulfill some mythical quest.
What did I like?
A strong idea
The idea behind this series is just so strong. It’s one of those ideas that makes you think: "man, wish I thought of that!"
The same way every 10-year-old with an interest in writing looked at Harry Potter and thought: "why didn’t I think of a magic school!?"
Greek mythology has an endless well of very good and interesting stories, which you may freely use and modify. (There isn’t some guy in Greece with an interesting heritage that still claims copyright to those myths :p)
A world in which all those myths were real is therefore interesting by default. No wonder the number of Percy Jackson books just keeps growing and growing.
For this pentalogy, the author mostly picked from the most famous and well-known myths, but also introduced a few bits that are more obscure. (I studied Greek and Latin in high school and basically only passed because I knew my mythology, not because I could actually translate any of that shit.)
The idea draws you in. The idea has endless possibilities for stories, character, worldbuilding, everything. The idea has this fantasy factor, especially to kids, of: "What if Gods really existed? And what if I was a demigod with magic?"
And this particular execution of that idea is more than good enough to do it justice.
It also helps that Greek Mythology is very … acceptable? I’ve studied lots of other cultures and their mythology, but they’re usually more gruesome, or odd, or morally questionable. Especially Western civilization finds it hard to identify with such stories, whereas the Ancient Greeks are almost unanimously seen as a wise and interesting culture.
Which is partially a correct assumption, partially not. I don’t want to dive into that, but the Ancient Greeks did both amazing things and horrible things. Like most cultures.
After reading hundreds of books over the years, I’ve build some vague sense of "solid writing". I can’t truly define it or teach it, but you know it when you read it.
A style that strikes the perfect balance between sentences that are clear and sentences that flow well. A style that is modern and snappy, without making all sentences extremely short or chopped. A style that can insert jokes without overdoing it, write action without feeling repetitive, be distinct without drawing attention to itself.
Anyway, this author has it.
I’ve read many books (mostly by YA authors) with a style that just feels more like a shopping list. Or one with so many references or popular words inserted that the book’s outdated the moment it leaves the printer.
At the same time, I’ve read books (mostly fantasy and science-fiction) with extremely long sentences with extremely difficult words. Which, sure, read like poetry, but also take me twice as long to read and five times as long to understand.
The writing style of Percy Jackson made reading the series, from start to finish, smooth and effortless.
Even though the action and scene structure is very repetitive, there’s still enough variation in how it’s written and presented that it never truly bothered me.
Additionally, Rick Riordan has a clever wit that can litter the story with funny jokes without getting in the way.
Some might see this is a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing.
From the start, the books make it very clear that death is expected and completely silly quests or situations are par for the course.
The gods do stupid things. Camp Half-Blood practices many unnecessarily dangerous ideas. (Such as Capture the Flag where killing another kid mostly gets you a stern lecture, and it’s written as if that is a new rule that didn’t exist until recently.)
When somebody leaves, everybody half accepts they’ll never come back. Even in the most dire situations, Percy can respond with a joke or some silly thought, and it never feels out of place.
This kind of tone—this atmosphere—is what allows the books to have crazy monsters, adventures, prophecies, minor gods, and more … without feeling like the story is just a bunch of random ideas thrown together.
Because the books inform you, from the start, that ill-advised dangerous stuff is to be expected.
And because there’s no brake on what’s possible, the stories can be more surprising. They can throw your cliché Hero’s Journey out of the window at some moments. (And I do very much dislike stories that are predictable.)
I think the books could’ve leaned into this even more. I would have liked to see this author’s imagination truly run rampant. But what we get so far is already more imaginative and unhinged than many other stories I’ve read.
Some good character work
Finally, there is some good character work in these books.
The main characters have distinct personalities, without feeling like the author’s just ticking boxes. The way their relationships grow and change is mostly well-written and fun to see.
That’s important, because when the rest of the story is just repetitive monster-slaying, you really need those characters to keep things interesting.
In fact, I’ll always say that a story starts with character and nothing else. Another "intuition" you receive when reading lots of books: whether an author knows how to write character or not. If they do, the plot can be absolutely stupid, you know the book will still be worthwhile. If they don’t, you better not waste your time.
The same is true for Harry Potter. Rowling is an underrated character author. Her plots are full of holes and her writing mediocre at best. But her characters made the world what it is to many of us.
Some side-characters get the same treatment (basically raising them to main character status in my eyes), though lacking enough time to realize true depth. All other side-characters are basically there for the show—or whatever single purpose they must serve in that show.
The number of scenes in this series in which they’re not fighting a monster is exceedingly small. Some of those scenes are well-spent with the characters, and it truly made me love them or the story more. Other scenes try to do the same thing, but fall flat on their face.
What did I not like?
Let’s get that out of the way first.
There’s no denying this. When I mentioned reading the books to other people, many of them responded they read (or tried to read) the series some time ago. Whether they loved it or not, finished it or not, they all agreed that it was just the same cycle over and over.
- Here’s a monster.
- We fight it.
- We talk about our fight and move on to the next monster.
I can see why he chose to do that. It also fits the whole idea that Percy is hyperactive.
Because each monster has different characteristics, and Riordan tries to switch up how the fight happens, it mostly doesn’t get in the way.
I noticed many fights taking place in odd locations, forcing Percy and the gang to change how they fight or flee. Similarly, the best action scenes in the books are when there are consequences. Percy gains a piece of armor as their "prize". Somebody is wounded and can’t join the next fight. If that had been utilized much more, this probably would’ve become a non-issue.
Still, it’s a very tiring cycle when stretched over five books. You can never catch your breath. You can never go deeper into the characters, or the worldbuilding, or the consequences of what just happened.
After every 10 pages, you’re both overwhelmed (as the reader), as well as increasingly bored because nothing truly changed. They just defeated another monster that appeared in their path.
This leads us to …
Everything comes and goes suddenly
The thing that separates a story from a random sequence of events is a logical chain of effect and consequence.
This series often strays dangerously close to "this was never explained, but the author just needed something to happen now, so let’s explain it quickly, and when we’re done this whole idea is removed from the book again!"
Things suddenly exist. And they’re suddenly relevant—no, not just relevant, crucial to the plot or somebody’s backstory. Even though the reader never heard of that before and couldn’t see it coming in any way.
And just as suddenly as things appear, they also disappear. When done with that idea, the story moves on to the next random idea plucked from the air.
Part of the fun when reading is predicting what happens next. Thinking further ahead. Trying to solve mysteries. Being eager to delve deeper into that magical spell hinted at the beginning.
When a book has such a high rate of random scenes, it becomes unfulfilling to even try and predict what happens. You just go with the flow. When something happens, you just sigh and go like "of course it does", "of course it suddenly works that way", "of course a monster appeared right then".
The books have something good going with their prophecies. That’s the one thing that usually creates a mystery at the start that you can think about or try to predict until the end. But even then, they’re often too vague and too inconsequential to really feel fulfilling.
I read the first 3 books with a mediocre interest. I noticed my interest rising with the 4th book, because at that point we actually had longer story threads. Things from the past came back. Things were actually set up and then explored further. We had logical goals and sequences of events, while other story threads were resolved in semi-satisfying ways.
Which leads into the third consequence …
Not enough depth
Knowing the cycle above, you can see how most time is spent doing the same things.
- Suddenly explain a new monster or piece of mythology
- Spend a few pages fighting it
- Then maybe, if we’re lucky, a few pages of reflection and non-action.
In other words, only 5% of the pages are spent actually deepening characters or the world. Which is just too little.
The books have some good character arcs (and character "endings") in theory. But when you never actually get to know the characters or truly spend time with them, you don’t feel anything. When you have no way to understand their sudden actions, no investment in their past or their persona, it just doesn’t work.
I would’ve been fine with the books being 50 pages longer (at least), spending time here and there adding more depth. Without it, the books feel more like a sitcom. A quick, comfy adventure that’s not challenging—and when done, you just continue and never think about it again.
Looking at some of the plot and character from an outside perspective ("in theory"), this series could be masterpiece. When experienced firsthand, in practice, the execution simply does not leave enough non-monster-fighting time to accomplish any of the tension or feelings sought after.
When somebody dies or goes away, do you really care? I mean, death was to be expected, right? The characters regularly joke about how stupidly dangerous everything at their camp is.
The characters are literally always in mortal danger and they miraculously survive all of it. And yet those main characters are precisely the ones you know will not die, or go away, or get seriously hurt.
So the only real consequences would happen to minor side-characters whom you don’t know well enough to care about.
The unhinged atmosphere of the books lend themselves well to the comfy, fun, adventure vibe. They do not mesh well with any attempt at further depth or real stakes.
Hyperactivity doesn’t work like that
Finally, the story tries to add some positive messages. Which is mostly fine, but also half-baked.
Trying to get kids interested in ancient cultures and languages is, of course, always applaudable. Though I’m not sure how much of an impact this has.
The books basically say "Hyperactive and restless? You’re not a troubled kid—you’re just a demigod!" which is also fun.
Hyperactivity and dyslexia are not related, nor are hyperactivity and reflexes (or general fitness).
Hyperactivity doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t focus or keep attention for longer than a few seconds. (Also, this fact is mentioned like 7 times, and that’s it. It does not change anything else.)
Hyperactivity means that your body and brain are always active. Your body needs to move, otherwise you feel trapped and restless. Your mind thinks long and hard about everything, which is both a big feature (you can achieve more and solve more problems than others), and a big downside (it’s overwhelming and exhausting).
This also means that, if you ever get stuck, your mind instantly jumps to another idea. Because getting stuck means not moving! This gives the impression that hyperactivity means you have an attention span of 3 seconds, but that’s not true. As long as you don’t get stuck in a certain train of thought—as long as something stays interesting—you can actually (almost obsessively) stay in that line for hours, days, or weeks.
I myself am extremely hyperactive, but you’d never know that if I didn’t tell you.
This review was written in 90 minutes of non-stop writing with no distractions or breaks. For 90 minutes, my whole brain—my whole world—was "Percy Jackson" :p
I usually start my day with 60 minutes of exercise. Why? So my body can be at ease the rest of the day. I don’t have a superhuman amount of stamina and energy that allows me to be that active all day. (If you don’t make it a habit to constantly stay moving and exercise a lot, you will start to fidget all day or aimlessly wander around procrastinating.)
The story is actually way more structured (and streamlined) than the brain of a hyperactive person! If the writing style really wanted to show this trait, it would need to be much messier. Percy would keep thinking and thinking about all issues, never letting anything rest, suddenly jumping to events from long ago in his thoughts.
The story should’ve been put into smaller scenes, of wildly varying length, jumping from story thread to story thread, switching narrators. That’s a hyperactive brain.
I guess what I’m getting at is this. Putting some (positive) message in your stories is fine, but if that’s all you’re doing—paying lip service or presenting the easy, assumed view—then it doesn’t do anything.
A hyperactive kid reading these stories might initially think "hey, I recognize that!" … until they quickly realize that the story does not help them at all in the real, practical, actual world.
Percy is not shown dealing with any of the myriad of issues that come from being hyperactive. (Or dyslexic, for that matter, though I can’t weigh in on that due to the fact I am not dyslexic.) The chaotic nature of the stories is nothing compared to an actual hyperactive brain. In my experience, being hyperactive is a constant source of being misunderstood, punished, called a troubled kid, or generally living on a whoooole different plane than those around you.
None of that is handled in any meaningful, practical, usable way.
A minor gripe, slightly personal to me. I don’t like when stories date themselves by needless insertions of modern brands, celebrities or language.
Why mention somebody gets a highly specific modern-day beverage? Why do it at all?
It makes these books—despite being very recent—already outdated. It makes me roll my eyes and takes my out of that world, instead of making it feel more alive or immediate.
What is a god? It’s unclear.
Another minor gripe, slightly personal to me. I’m a logical person. I slightly prefer (magic) systems that are at least explained somewhat, built on some solid foundations or laws of your world.
In the Percy Jackson books, gods are presented as all-powerful (with an annoying nonchalance) one moment … and completely clueless and powerless the next. Whatever fits the current narrative the author is painting.
The powers, lives and intentions of the gods are ludicrously vague and unexplained.
I can’t say much more than that without spoilers.
(Also, the book mentions that the gods move towards the current center of power on Earth, which is obviously America. This made me chuckle. Only Americans could think their mess of a country that can’t even figure out basic healthcare or human rights is obviously the best ;))
This worsens all my other negatives. It makes the stories even more random and unpredictable. It makes the stories even more "go with the flow, there’s no logic here". It wastes a lot of opportunities for solid worldbuilding or mythical/magical systems, basically sidelining the gods until they have one scene in which they wave their hand and solve something.
Despite all my criticisms, I did like the books. It’s a strong idea. It’s written and executed quite well. It’s enjoyable, never hard to follow or read, and it mostly paints a picture of a group of friends just having fun together and going on quests. None of the books overstays its welcome, which is a great plus if you read my other reviews that almost unanimously say "this book could’ve been 100 pages shorter".
They are certainly not high literature or anything more, despite what some fans might claim. I’ll be reading other books now that hopefully provide some more depth and meat to the story. Less repetitive and random action.
But hey, it was a fun place to be for a while.
Perhaps that’s the best summary.
I would never mind reading another Percy Jackson book. They’re light, quick and comfortable adventures. Written well enough and with clear forward momentum, based on an interesting part of Greek mythology.
But I would never expect to get anything truly deep, meaningful or unexpected from it.
Hence my uncertain rating of about 7 or 8. Which, considering I’m not the target audience, and I haven’t read beyond the first five books, I’ll mix with "benefit of the doubt" and round to an 8.
Below I’ll add a few more examples and remarks to my statements. To do so, I’ll give a bunch of spoilers, mostly for the final book. (Even though I read the whole pentalogy in less than a month, I do not remember much from the earlier books. Probably because most events were pretty inconsequential.)
We’ve seen the gods appear and disappear somewhere at will. We know they’re immortal and that, no matter how badly damaged or wounded, they can still function or project their mind to other places. We know Zeus is basically listening to everything around the world, rumbling whenever he doesn’t like what he hears.
We’ve seen the gods wave their hand to do the exact magical thing they wanted. With nonchalance. There’s seemingly no payment for their power, no skill, no clear limit.
And yet … they are dumb, stumbling fools at all times. Absolutely no plan, strategy or logical consistency.
They repeatedly state they "can’t directly interfere with the lives of their kids" because of some "ancient laws". But why? Why follow it? What is direct interference? We see loads of examples that I’d classify as direct interference.
And their kids are allowed to directly interfere with them. How does that work? Why is it one way? What good could come of it?
What’s the punishment if you do directly interfere? Does the ancient law through a boulder from the sky? Do you stop being immortal?
The Gods constantly seem surprised by the simplest of things. They refuse to use the power they clearly have for no clear reason.
I mean, for God’s sake, Percy has to tell Poseidon in the last book that he should "help with the battle". No shit, Sherlock! Poseidon is a god. Endlessly powerful and wise. And he does not understand that he has to help stop the thing threatening to destroy them all, unless some 16-year old kid says it to him?
I understand that the author needs to weaken the gods somehow. Otherwise, all-powerful immortal beings are sure to solve every problem in your book without issue. (The common mistake of power creep must be avoided!)
I understand he wants some wiggle room for later stories.
But this isn’t wiggle room, this is a wiggle universe :p
The gods could also be con artists posing as magicians, and the effect would mostly be the same.
(Also, the text repeatedly states that the gods are three thousand years old. Which … ignores all the other thousands of years that humans existed? And all the influential cultures before that?
Were the gods born when somebody yelled "Hey, looks like we have an Ancient Greek Civilization here!"? Was the world godless before then? If the gods are that young, how do they even know they’re gods or immortal?)
It all comes down to: WHAT IS A GOD? The books don’t know. I don’t know. And that means the stories invent random powers or limitations at frustrating times to keep the plot going.
Lack of depth
In the final book, there’s this whole mystery about there being a spy across their ranks. Somebody who relays their plans to Kronos to make him one step ahead. Interesting, yes.
But this mystery is never really advanced. Just repeating "there is a spy" without searching for them, or providing further evidence/clues, does nothing.
So when the solution is revealed, it’s "sudden" and "random" again.
Not only that, the spy (Silena Beauregard) could not really be guessed, and the fact that it’s them makes no true sense and has no consequences.
We just don’t know her well enough. She appeared a few times, said a few things, became slightly more important in the last book … but that’s it.
Her decision to spy does not make the reader feel anything. Her death isn’t that impactful, as we were barely invested in her.
The fact that they later agree to tell everyone she was a hero (and ignoring the spy part), also doesn’t sit well with me. That’s just plain stupid. Due to her spy actions, probably loads of their own people were badly injured or killed. One "brave" charge at a monster she can’t possibly defeat doesn’t wash that away.
The books often try to make moments feel like these grand emotional swings or impactful statements. But without the proper build-up, without the depth and journey towards it … that just does not work.
Who was Silena Beauregard? No clue. She’s gone now—oh hey, next action scene fighting another monster.
Too fast, too loose
This is also exemplified in arguably the biggest moment of the series, a few scenes later. The moment they defeat Kronos and the way they do it, again, seems smart on paper. But in the execution, it’s just a few lines—I almost missed it—and then it’s done.
There’s one (short) paragraph of Percy handing the knife to Luke, who promises to stab himself to kill Kronos (who inhabits his body). But Luke, well, instantly does exactly what he promised and a few words later Kronos is no more.
Kronos. The biggest, baddest Titan. The thing they were building towards all those books. The overarching thread that actually kept me reading.
And again, the books can do this because Kronos’ actual power and weaknesses are COMPLETELY unclear. So yeah, it’s a way to do that scene.
In my opinion, it would’ve been way stronger if …
- The powers and limitations of both Gods and Titans were clearly shown and communicated.
- And, being Gods and all, they were strong and not easily circumvented.
- So our heroes actually had to be smart, and fight hard, and go out of their way to find ways to beat it.
- Which they do for many, many pages until they finally defeat Kronos.
If done that way, it would feel way more satisfying. Not only the ending, but the whole journey from start to finish.
Another moment that struck me as a wasted opportunity, was Annabeth’s "outburst" to Hera at the end of book 4. For the first time, both she and Percy do not grovel before the gods, but tell them they’re worthless parents. (Which Hera, obviously, does not like. She reacts with words like "you’ll regret that!")
This is a good moment. A powerful moment. An emotional moment. After a long time, the heroes stand up against injustice, even against gods that could incinerate them with a handwave. Standing up for something is especially powerful if it’s against somebody more powerful than you.
Does Annabeth regret it, though?
Nah. Forget about it and move on.
Again, I would’ve liked it more if this had consequences.
- Maybe the offended gods were seriously destroying the lives of Percy/Annabeth from now on.
- Maybe they refused their help or advice. (Giving Poseidon an actual reason to ignore pleas from Percy.)
- Maybe this became so bad that they both seriously considered switching sides. (Let’s be real, did anyone believe our heroes would actually side with Kronos? In stories like these, the good guys are always inexplicably loyal to the side portrayed as good, everything else be damned.)
Let’s stop there
Pfew, this became way longer than I anticipated. I could give countless more examples, but I’ll stop here.
Again, I like the books. I’m just explaining the parts I did not like, and trying to learn from the books, both its shortcomings and its strengths.
Because there’s no denying that this is one of the biggest series/franchises in the world, trailing not far off behind the likes of Harry Potter. I can see why. I can also see things to improve.