Book Review: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

New York City meets Mount Olympus

A normal, dyslexic 12-year-old kid from modern-day New York City finds himself immersed into a world that he thought was only legend, with unexpected but riveting results. Meet Percy Jackson, a demi-god amongst many gods. Author Rick Riordan crafts an imaginative story with an intriguing premise and a borrowed world that he masterfully walks his readers through.

A little bit of everything

I believe that a great formula for literary success, most especially in a fiction/fantasy format is to have a fresh, original story, interesting characters, witty writing, and a fast-moving plot. And the first book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series demonstrated these qualities. I’ll highlight three of my favorite features:

  1. The premise of modern kid meeting mythical world sounds like an interesting idea in theory and Riordan transforms it into an engaging story in writing. I love how we are introduced to various Greek gods and goddesses in stages, the author sprinkling and layering different characters and concepts from Greek lore in ways that made you want to delve deeper into the interconnecting network, vast world, and sometimes seemingly baffling maze that is the Greek pantheon of deities. The author does a fantastic job of making his world enjoyable for the reader’s imagination to dabble in.
  2. I liked the leading protagonist, and have always enjoyed main characters that are sarcastic and cynical, who at the same time need to grow, mature, and develop. Percy Jackson is a relatable hero who deals with the frustration of struggling in school, lacking a respectable father figure in his life, and trying to please his loving, understanding, and yet victimized mother. He faces his future with an all-to-real reaction of fear, anger, doubt, and hope, all mixed together like an interweaved ball of emotional yarn. His life only gets more complex and his future more uncertain as he is drawn into a destiny he had never dreamed of living. There’s nothing as wooden and hollow as a human character without human emotion and human weakness.
  3. The author’s writing style carries the story of the book well. He maintains a fast and active pace that starts to create in the reader the sense of constantly anticipating a new development, action-scene, or haunting question being revealed every few pages. And the author often delivers, while sprinkling in enough sarcasm and wit to draw out a few laughs, at least from your respective reviewer.

Evaluation

I have always been a strong believer in the idea that a writer conveys at least some part of their worldview, of their philosophy, of their theology, through their written works, through their characters, and through their plotlines. In a fictional world where gods are a dime a dozen, how the author views the one true God and all biblical concepts related to Him, has to eventually reveal its head. One only has to look. Allow me to share a few observations:

1. Immoral network of gods vs. one, true, holy God

Anyone who has experimented with Greek mythology knows that the Greek gods and goddesses were hardly paragons of virtue. They lust, they cheat, they lie, they kill, they scheme, and they have dark sides that control them and motivate their immoral actions. They have god-like power combined however with the weaknesses of human character. Like iron and clay mixed together. And that’s how we find them in this book, true to character; selfish, proud, with rare streaks of nobility that sometimes flash through like a tear coursing a pure line down a dirty face. If you don’t trust human nature, don’t trust a god’s character. That’s what Percy Jackson learns. How can gods save you from harm, when they can’t even rescue themselves from their own vices? Greek gods are just sinful humans bulked up on divine steroids with no moral accountability.

What a great contrast this creates with our own God, the one, true holy God of the Bible who does not change or fluctuate rising and falling according to the capricious tides of human emotion and sinfulness. He remains ever pure and ever perfect. He’s sovereign over all realms. He reigns as the God of War. He has shown Himself through the cross to be the great God of Love. Creation in all of its splendor and diversity is His domain. He is its Creator and Sustainer. The Lord of Death who has conquered death: as fierce as the sea in all its fury, and yet as gentle as a drop of dew on a blade of grass. All in One, One over all, unmatchable, untamable, unchangeable. His competitors are liquefied to ash in the presence of His glory. Is there any doubt as to who wins this matchup?

2. The question of God in a world of gods

It’s reasonable to assume that before his initiation into the world of the gods,  Percy Jackson was an atheist. When presented with the possibility that there might be actual gods who exist, Percy thinks the reference is to the God with the capital G. And he expresses an incredulity that well represents the traditional atheism pushed in public education today. “You’re telling me there’s such a thing as God?” (Pg91) His skeptical question is never directly answered. But it is asked and answered by many people today, too often in the negative. Scripture teaches us that everyone knows that God exists through creation (Rom. 1:20) an understanding of basic right and wrong hardwired into each human heart, (Rom. 2:14) and a conscience that acts as the alarm system to our souls (Rom. 2:15). Unlike a mythical pantheon of Greek deities, the evidence for the existence of God is rooted all around us in nature, and in us through morality and conscience. But most clearly and truthfully God is revealed through His Son Jesus Christ in His Word. (Heb. 1:1-2) The question of God’s existence doesn’t have to be left unresolved and unanswered. As one of my favorite theologians, Norm Geisler, has said, God Himself has spoken and He has not stuttered.

3. Truth out of a centaur’s mouth

Twice in this book, a comment is made about how people’s interpretations of reality are a very powerful factor in helping them decide what perspective to take on certain issues. One of the characters, a wise centaur, touches upon something that is very true and yet easily forgotten. “Remarkable, really, the lengths to which humans will go to fit things into their version of reality.” (pg203). Percy Jackson finds himself having to radically alter his worldview after encountering the all-to-real rough-and tumble playground of Greek legend. He may have originally bucked against the idea of believing in something he had once considered fiction, but eventually it was the evidence that convinced him that despite his earlier skepticism, this world of gods was real. Can we not find a similar parallel when it comes to belief in God and the Bible? I think we can, albeit with a twist. The evidence of the truth about God and His Word is overwhelming and obvious, but unbelievers quickly learn how to deny the undeniable and suppress deep down thoughts which they never want to entertain. They stubbornly cling to seeing the world in the lens of their own choosing regardless of being told they have the wrong prescription. “Remarkable…the lengths to which humans will go to fit things into their version of reality.” Indeed. To what lengths will they go? It’s a reminder we all need to hear. The human mind will refuse to accept what the human heart has rejected as worthless.

Hell, Hades, and Heaven

Upon entering the underworld we uncover a patch in the book where the author tips his hand about several concepts concerning the afterlife. There are a couple interesting tidbits to observe

A place called Elysium is in the underworld and resembles the common misconception of heaven. Entrance into this place is determined by how good a person was during their earthly life. Plain and simple, this is a declaration of salvation by works: salvation by one’s own efforts, instead of humble faith in Christ. This is a false gospel, and a damning one. Believed by millions, it is one of the greatest lies that anyone can accept. “We are saved by grace through faith, and that not of ourselves…it is the gift of God, not of men lest we should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) In the fictional paradise of this novel we find a cliché presentation of how the human race can access heaven, but in the real world, living the life of a boy scout doesn’t make you acceptable in the eyes of a holy God. Access to heaven requires one specific qualification: being covered in the perfect righteousness of Christ. Faith in Jesus is the only way to get it. Any other way is a path doomed to futility and failure.The wicked people of Riordan’s book find themselves facing the Fields of Punishment in the underworld for eternity, subjugated to torturers and pain, inflicted by minions apparently stationed there for that purpose. I couldn’t help but think of the prominent view on hell today that teaches that Satan and his demonic host run the place like kings of a palace. That instead of being prisoners bound to the same fate as its human inhabitants, they own and operate the joint like it was their own personal funhouse. The Bible instead teaches something that contradicts this notion entirely. Satan and his angels are just as much afraid of hell as all unbelievers apart from faith in Christ should be. This place was originally created for them (Matt. 25:41), not as a place of pleasure, but a realm of torment and punishment. However much we are repulsed by the concept of an eternal hell, we dare not customize its description, for the Lord of the living and the dead has revealed it to us as it is.

Conclusion

I would rather be at the mercy of a captivating story than at the mercy of the whims of a capricious and unscrupulous deity any day. Our God’s faithfulness stands in contrast to the Greek gods’ fickleness. We should walk away from this tale thankful that the gods that splash the literary portrait of this story with the vivid colors of imaginary intrigue are not related to the God who reigns sovereignly from His throne and died for us sacrificially on the cross.

 

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