Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

lightning thiefApparently the Percy Jackson series has a cult following akin to that of Harry Potter, which was largely unbeknownst to me until my friend pointed it out. Though I can see why Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief may be appealing to young audiences, it’s amazing to me how it is so popular when the books have such little merit.

The Lightning Thief is the first book of the Percy Jackson series written by Rick Riordan. It follows Percy Jackson, son of the Greek God Poseidon, as he journeys to the Underworld to recover Zeus’s lightning bolt to prevent a war among the Olympian Gods.

I understand why The Lightning Thief is appealing. I understand perfectly. Percy’s characterization appeals to young teenagers who have felt, in one point or another in their life, out of place, isolated, alienated, awkward or on the fringe of teenage normality. Percy’s poor performance at school is easily explained by the genetics on his father/Greek God’s side, his inability to pay attention is because of his instinct to stay alive – essentially, every flaw that has plagued Percy’s life is explained by the fact that he is a superior human being. And as a young teenager, or else as a person in a confusing stage in your life, I can certainly see why that is appealing.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying teenagers are petty for finding this sort of novel empowering; in fact, I get it. Even for me, it appeals for my want to become something greater than what I am now, or being part of something that is larger than life. But the problem is that beyond this – and the integration of Greek mythology into the novel – the merits of this book are sparse.

Bearing in mind that the target audience is for children to teenagers, the narrative is simplistic, and I am unsure if that is due to the limitations of the author or because Percy is a young adult with a teenage voice. But then again, even simple writing can be sophisticated, and The Lightning Thief lacks that sort of sophistication and refinery, or insight in the overarching ideas of the novel.

The primary failing of this novel, however, is the execution of the plot. If you detach the plot itself from how it was executed, then the story is decent. It’s a children’s book that has potential, especially because it is eventful and can be interesting. But the events of the novel felt disjointed and spliced together, like a compilation of ‘mini adventures of the Lightning Thief’ amalgamated into one book. Understandably the eventfulness of the book is to probably keep readers entertained, but when the events do not contribute to the story or are not completely meaningful in building towards the book’s climax, then it feels very underwhelming and pointless in the end. For me, it felt like Riordan chose including an assortment of cool mythological creatures for the sake of ‘coolness’ over coherent storytelling. Essentially, The Lightning Thief is poorly written.

Furthermore – and many readers have already pointed this out – Percy may have ‘challenges’ but they aren’t challenging, or else do not feel so. His successes are predictable and thus feel largely undeserved. The challenges that Percy faces are ‘challenges’ in terms of what a quest should have, but ultimately the quest taught him nothing about himself or did not challenge his development as a character – which is what a quest should ideally do for someone.

Also, a massive gripe that I have with this book was that it had many eurocentric and Americentric undertones. The Western world is the greatest force in the world? The Olympian Gods are centred in America because it is the most powerful force? I won’t even delve into the problems that sort of ideology has caused; these are the ideologies that uphold systems of oppression, justify imperialism and American supremacy. For that sort of ideology to seep into a children’s book — this sort of rhetoric has no place in children’s books. Kids may not understand the impact that sort of thinking may impact the world, but it will impact how they perceive it. (Not to mention Chiron was extremely preachy about it too.)

To sum it up: The Lightning Thief is average. It’s easy to read because of its simplistic narrative and characterization, but it makes no attempts to gauge or emotionally or mentally challenge its readers. It is escapism material with very little merits, though it has enough for it to be entertaining. Maybe The Lightning Thief is one of those books that you give to kids that don’t like reading to ease them into the idea that reading can be fun. Personally, The Lightning Thief had potential but it’s lack of boldness, problematic undertones and poor plot execution left much to be desired.

Rating: 2/5

Book Information
Book Name: Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief
Book Series: Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1
Author: Rick Riordan
Pages: 377
Publisher:  Disney Hyperion Books

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in TranslationI feel like I should read more diasporia/immigrant experience novels because, for the most part, Girl in Translation was a validating, emotionally engaging and a comforting reading experience. I also feel like Girl in Translation has given me the push that I needed to find more immigrant experience literature, in an attempt to understand a variety of perspectives.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok tells the story of Kimberly Chan, a young Chinese girl who emigrates to America from Hong Kong with her mother, and her new life that follow – living in poverty and working in a sweatshop, the conflict of beliefs and worldviews, and the prejudice and experience as a foreigner.

There were so many things that I identified with in Girl in Translation. Although I am not an immigrant but am a citizen in my country, it’s incredible how close our experiences aligned regardless. The language barriers, the alienation and becoming the alienated, or the deep-seated fear of being too different as well as losing yourself in the attempt to be the same as everyone else – these are experiences most diasporic/immigrant children will have at some point in their lives, which is why it is necessary and important to talk about. As Hanisch said, ‘the personal is political’.

Something that Girl in Translation does well is how Kwok, for the most part, seamlessly integrates the Chinese perspective into her narrative. Kimberly’s surprise, naivety and confusion of Western thinking was extremely important – not only for me, because I grew up surrounded by the Western way of thinking – but for others also, as it should challenge what we consider and endorse as normal. The narrative encourages the reader to analyze what we unconsciously normalize and perpetuate as hegemony. In a way, I feel like this is an attempt to dismantle the idea that the Western way is the better and default way. Kimberly’s resistance to these social norms and ideas is important in this book, as it also confronts the reader with the raw experience of what it is like to be a foreigner in a place that is supposed to be your home.

Kimberly’s dedication and ambition to give her Mother a better life was something that really touched me. As an individual that chooses and upholds values of filial piety – the feeling of ‘duty’ to one’s parents and family – this is something that hits close to home. Though this isn’t thoroughly explored, the clash of Western and Eastern values and being caught in the middle can sometimes be painful and extremely confusing, e.g. Chinese ‘face’ versus the Western ‘do stupid shit while you’re young’. Though Kimberly comes out of this conflict a little differently than what I imagined, that resolution and coming to terms with who you are is a rite of passage all diasporic/immigrant should face.

As many reviewers before me have said, though the book starts off extremely well and hits hard on the details of immigrant experience, the further this book progresses, the more it loses its boldness and its way. I hoped that Girl in Translation would remain an exploration of her experiences as a Chinese growing up in America (not just in childhood), but half way it becomes a bittersweet romance. And although one could fairly argue that the romance is a part of growing up and exploration of unique experiences, I had hoped that Kwok would explore psychological and socio-cultural struggles further, because your teenage years are the most confusing identity-wise – and what better time and place to write about them?

The second half felt like a compromise for the poor, poor people who couldn’t bring themselves to understand the trials and challenging perspective of the first half. Furthermore, Kimberly seems to relent to the Western way so easily that it’s amazing she had those emotional experiences in the first place. Knowing my own experience and the experiences of many others, this felt unrealistic to me. This was the most disappointing aspect of the book. The only consolation was that, in the end, Kimberly confronts the Eastern perspective through another character, though this is done so poorly that it’s almost condescending – for anyone who doesn’t understand the character in question’s perspective and why he said the things he did, he would have been portrayed as an asshole, which would have undone any attempt to develop an emotional connection through intimate experience with the reader.

Maybe I expect too much from this book, because Girl in Translation began as the book I never wrote. Maybe I should resolve this by actually writing my own book. Sigh.

Nonetheless, though Girl in Translation has an ending that does its beginning no justice (mind you, it’s not entirely disappointing; there are some merits), it’s an important novel, and perhaps a starting point for people with like experiences to reach out to each other, connect with each other and develop a sense of solidarity through these shared experiences.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Publisher: Riverhead
Pages: 304

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Throne of GlassI wanted a trashy* read and I got one. Except the surprising thing was that it was pretty good trash – engaging, exciting and interesting. So, here’s a book I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. If you like YA books, are looking for an easy read and is moderately enjoyable, this book is pretty ideal.

Throne of Glass tells the story of Celaena Sardothien, an eighteen year old assassin, who, after being betrayed and sentenced to a life of hard labour in the mines, is offered a chance of freedom by the Crown Prince. In exchange for her freedom, the prince offers her one condition: become his champion and serve years in his father’s name. However, a series of mysterious deaths leads Celaena to suspect that there is an evil greater than the king himself, and that there is a destiny, greater than becoming a champion, awaiting her.

As I said earlier, Throne of Glass was surprisingly enjoyable. However, at its very heart, Throne of Glass is a fantasy, which is where I take my first issue: the lack of emphasis and development of the lore, magic and imagination makes the fantasy aspect more supplementary, rather than something purely fantasy. It feels like Maas herself isn’t too sure of what sort of book/series Throne of Glass is. Is it a fantasy? A mystery? A romance? (Who knows.) But because Maas eventually does find her footing in the latter chapters (in terms of development of fantasy elements and a more consistent writing style), I’m fairly confident that Maas’s writing will improve once she figures out what the Throne of Glass series, as a whole, is supposed to be.

Throne of Glass bears some merit and I’m interested in how Maas will develop Throne of Glass‘s strengths in future books. Without giving much away, specific characters were written with complex ideologies, motives and goals (i.e. Nehemia), and through the characters the book offers a refreshing and uncommon perspective on war and rebellion. (Also, female friendships!) Though the worldbuilding leaves much to be desired, I hope Maas develops it further in the future so the plot and characters blend seamlessly with the lore and setting – which is something, I feel, is lacking.

With regards to our main protagonist, all I’ll say is 1) I think Maas is trying to tell me that assassins are quite violent and by speech and nature will have violent thoughts, and 2) assassins may kill people but they can still like pretty dresses and reading and I just think, well, why the hell not. In saying that though, I hope that Celaena is developed further in the future books, as she feels like a facade of something complex, rather than someone that has essence. Furthermore, Maas does a lot of telling instead of showing with regards to Celaena’s skill as an assassin. I hope we can see more of what Celaena can do in the second book.

Flaws, aside from the writing style as I mentioned briefly, lie mostly in the stereotypical and predictable characterization of the two male characters. Though towards the end they are (sort of) fleshed out and (almost) break out of their cookie-cutter characterization, it’s a halfhearted attempt. Character motivations seem to make no sense at times, and the reduction of one specific female character to crazy-thirsty-bitch was somewhat disappointing; this character’s lack of insight and foresight made her a pathetic villain and, overall, pointless in the grand scheme of the book.

Despite my criticisms, and I have many – too many to outline in this review which I’m writing so late at night with minimal editing (very bad practice; don’t do this) – I took Throne of Glass as it was and though it isn’t fantastic writing, it is an enjoyable book, which I really need in my life nowadays. Overall, Throne of Glass is a series I’ll read further in the future and, with all honesty, am looking forward to reading its sequel.

* Trashy = my awful term which means easy to read, has typically simplistic themes that don’t require too much contemplation or analysis, something that is readable when I’m too sleepy to think but want something entertaining; trashy, like, for consumeristic purposes only. Like trash TV, I guess.

Rating: 2/5

Book Information
Book Name: Throne of Glass
Book Series: Throne of Glass #1
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children’s
Pages: 404