narfna’s #CBR5 Review #103: The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

house of hadesPlot has taken over where character development used to be in Riordan’s writing. I suppose it was inevitable when he started writing two books a year (at least he’s back down to one, now that the disappointing Kane Chronicles series is over with). And actually, the action and the mythology are still really, really fun, I just prefer the old version of this story. The original Percy Jackson series felt intimate and original.

In fact, I kind of hope after he’s done with this series that he moves on to writing about other things besides mythology-is-real books. I think he’s pretty much milked the concept for all its worth at this point. (I say this knowing full well he’s got a Norse mythology series in the works.)

That’s not to say I don’t like this book or this series, because I do. I especially liked this one, which I think is my favorite in the series so far.

It’s been almost two months since I finished it, so details are a little hazy. The action is basically split in two: half of it lies with Percy and Annabeth in Tartarus, and the other half with the remaining demigods as they fight their way to the Doors of Hades from the other side, encountering gods, monsters, and mythological creatures along the way. Frank in particular got some great stuff in this book, after basically being a doormat in the last two. And the mythological tricksters The Kerkopes made me laugh out loud.

But really, my heart belonged to Percy and Annabeth in Tartarus for this one. That whole arc, as they make their way to the heart of Tartarus, is genuinely terrifying, and frankly, kind of ballsy for a middle grade author. The themes they were dealing with down there were super intense. Also, Riordan introduces the Titan Bob, who gets some good stuff out of Percy, and is completely delightful (and surprisingly heartbreaking) in his own right. He almost entirely makes up for the fact that the Titans have been sort of neutered by this series. They were horrifying in the original series, and here they’re barely a concern.

Anyway, very much looking forward to the next book in the series, and I have faith that Riordan can pull it off.

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #14: D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods & Giants

I grew up with D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Mythsa wonderful book full of fabulous interpretations of the wild lives of the gods, complete with illustrations by the talented husband and wife children’s book team, Ingri and Parin D’Aulaire. I spent hours reading and re-reading these stories, trying to draw Aphrodite, Dionysus and the other gods and goddesses that the D’Aulaires portrayed in their distinctive lithographs.

I remember seeing their book on the Norse Gods when I was a kid. I must have taken it out of the library, but I frankly don’t remember it at all. When I was with the kid at the library the other day and saw D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods & Giants (reprinted recently as D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths) again I grabbed it, figuring it would be like my favorite Greek myth book. Well, sorta. The illustrations are as wonderful as one would expect. But the stories — they are so very, very different from the Greek myths. The Norse pantheon, although it shares a superficial resemblance to the Greeks, with creation stories and Odin as the head of the gods, is full of very distinct and different personalities from Zeus and his brother and sister gods and goddesses.

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Battling a frost giant

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Ygdrassil

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Loki plans his next trick

The D’Aulaires seem to be having a great time telling stories about the world of the Norse gods, including the world tree, Ygdrassil, Valhalla, and the gods’ ultimate destiny, Ragnarokk. Fans of comic books and recent superhero moves will recognize some of the main players — Odin the all father, hammer-wielding Thor, the god of thunder, and the shape shifting trickster, Loki, as well as the lovely Freya and the Valkyrie. The D’Aulaires’ books are geared towards children, but their retelling of these classic stories are dense and layered and could be equally enjoyed by adults. I’m glad I got a chance to find this book again.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #19: The Red Pyramid

For more on young adult fantasy literature (especially meta-cognitive thoughts about the nature of YA Franchises) check out my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

Rick Riordan never really left the page. One year after finishing the Percy Jackson series he was back with not one but two series. The similarly Greek themed “Heroes of Olympus” and an Egyptian styled series called: “The Kane Chronicles”. My school happened to have a cache of The Red Pyramid the first book in “The Kane Chronicles”, so naturally I picked up a copy both to see if Riordan still had a deft touch for action-adventure with a dollop of mythological education, and to see if it was worth discussing in the classroom.

 

To be sure, Riordan has a teacher’s style, a strong ear for teenage dialogue and a fair sense of fun when delving into exposition heavy monologues. He attacks Egyptian mythology with the same sincere appreciation of history and coming-of-age stories that made Percy Jackson such a pleasure to read, and seems all too happy to guide readers beyond American shores into London, Paris and Cairo.

 

Beyond different deities, Riordan separates “The Kane Chronicles” from Percy Jackson in one major way: altering the narrative focus from a single first-person point of view, to a pair of narrators telling their story through an “audio recording” that comes close to second-person point of view. It’s a clever conceit, one that I haven’t seen done in young adult series before and it helps to equalize the power balance between his two protagonists, the siblings Carter and Sadie Kane.

 

Unfortunately, that conceit also mucks up the act of story telling. The story starts with a plea to go quickly and a sense of urgency, then the narrators fixate on prosaic style. I readily believe that teenagers (whether they’re descended from an ancient order of Egyptians or not) would record their every thought, feeling and interest. I don’t know as I can make the leap from that kind of teenager, to the kind who possesses an incredible recall for events of several months before or who casually incorporates description like: “His clothes were similar to those he’d worn the day before, and I had to admit the guy had style. His tailored suit was made of blue wool, he wore a matching fedora and his hair was freshly braided with dark blue lapis lazuli“particularly if there’s an urgency to telling the reader a particular story.

 

While Sadie and Carter often sound like teenage siblings (particularly in the bickering, squabbling, under-your-breath insult arena), they also sound far more worldly than any teenager/magician/possible demi-god has a right to. The narrative bogs down in their descriptions and whenever there’s a hint of an explanation coming up, both characters are hurtled into a fresh action sequence, jumping from one monster to the next with a seemingly interchangeable array of adult guardians.

 

Still, give Riordan credit. He knows enough about what fans want to read (action and a healthy dose of mythology) that he can satisfy them while exploring other avenues of his own artistic interests as well (altering the narrative format, expanding the world around him). He even gives a satisfying glimpse into social dynamics of a mixed-race family, even if that point gets largely subsumed by falcon heads, swinging swords, ravenous hippopotami and plenty of explosions. I might not have asked for an encore to Percy Jackson, but I can’t say that Riordan’s half-assing his way off stage.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 41: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Goodreads’ incredibly short synopsis says: “In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.”

Fellow Pajibans recommended this to me during the last Cannonball, when I related my disappointment with The Flame Alphabet (tie-in: language epidemics.) It was very interesting to read this book so shortly after Ready Player One, because both deal with immersion in virtual realities. I enjoyed having Cline’s version  in recent memory as I read Snow Crash, which, as a predecessor to Ready Player One and a sci-fi/cyberpunk classic in its own right, almost certainly had a huge influence on Cline’s work.

I really enjoyed Snow Crash. There is a lot about it that is kind of silly and fantastical, even for sci-fi, including a basically made-up version of neurolinguistics and quite a bit of would-be futuristic jargon. It’s a tough line to toe, when you’re writing near-future sci-fi, that you run the risk of dating yourself when you invent new terminology and describe specifics about plausible but not currently existing technologies. How much of what you describe actually comes to pass or still ring true? Tech and gadgetry are so ubiquitous that nearly every reader of a book like this will have some kind of experience with it; compare that to other popular sci-fi themes like bioengineering or space travel, where there are a lot fewer ‘experts’ that can critique the realism of the book. All of that is to say that one of the cyberpunk genre’s main themes focuses on common technologies and what possibilities can be extrapolated from that tech in the future, and because so many of us are familiar with that technology, it makes it very easy to nitpick areas where books like Snow Crash diverge from either current or probable reality.

If you’re not especially concerned with your sci-fi being at least somewhat grounded in science and fact, then those types of incongruities will matter very little. For its part, I think Snow Crash constructed a pretty believable virtual reality in the Metaverse, but I found the tie-ins with Sumerian myth to be a little fantastical and ambitious, particularly given the somewhat haphazard explanation of neurolinguistics that bears only a passing resemblance to the actual academic field. That aside, I really enjoyed the scope and execution of the story. The pacing was a little frenetic, but I wasn’t too bothered by it as it heightened the tension and served to underline the hectic nature of life and society itself in the world of the book. The protagonists were not much more developed than avatars in a video game, but particularly given the emphasis on virtual reality, it almost seems appropriate that the reader does experience the book in that video game sense. It’s probably not a book for everyone, but as an overall fan of sci-fi (with piqued interest in cyberpunk as of late) I liked it a lot.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #5: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

As a newcomer to Neil Gaiman’s works, I found his American Gods mind-boggling in the literal sense of the word. When I finally turned the last page and put it down, I just sat there trying to figure out what it is I had just read—was it a good yarn filled with mythology, walking corpses, battles royale; was it a convoluted American road trip; was it a spoof of America by a Briton; was it a lament over the loss of faith in American society and/or a political commentary on the commercialization/”technification” of America? Given the iconic stature Gaiman’s novel has achieved in the past decade, I can only assume that it is all of the above.

American Gods is the story of Shadow, a very quiet, very big, very ordinary kind of a guy serving time for beating the crap of some fellow thieves and counting the days until he can be reunited with his beloved wife Laura.  He is released from prison early when Laura is killed in a car accident, and he goes back home to find nothing there for him—no family, no friend, no job, and the discovery that Laura had betrayed him with his best friend. So when a well-heeled grifter called Mr. Wednesday–who seems to know everything about Shadow–offers him undefined employment, he accepts. Shadow and Wednesday embark on a road trip of middle America (Gaiman mixes together real and fictional places, to keep us guessing), and little by little Shadow learns that Wednesday is in fact an incarnation of the Norse God Odin, who is attempting to rally the scattered and fading Old World gods brought over with the immigrants that make up America, to fight a battle for the soul of this country against the “new gods” of the internet, the credit card, the media, the automobile, the neon lights.

Some men-in-black types are deployed to stop Wednesday and his sad army of divine/satanic “has-beens,” who include the Hindu goddess of death Kali, the pagan goddess Easter, the African Anansi, the Egyptian gods Anubis, Bast, and Horus, and many more. But the enemy also appears to have fixated on Shadow for no obvious reason, and he survives a number of close encounters with their murderous henchmen, in part due to the intervention of his dead wife, who was accidentally reanimated and is determined to protect Shadow before she rots away. A benumbed Shadow, meanwhile, stumbles through his first weeks on the job, meeting peculiar characters, getting beaten up a lot, dreaming strange dreams, and practicing the coin tricks he began learning in prison to keep himself sane.

Gaiman’s novel takes on an increasingly psychedelic quality, starting with Shadow’s dreamed encounters with the dead Laura, his fantastic carousel ride with the gods, his visit to the stars with the Zorya sister, his vigil for Odin at World Tree, his sojourn in the land of the dead, his underground consultations with the buffalo-headed (Native American?) god, and much more. And yet, as strange a turn as the novel takes, it is also grounded in the real-life drama of Shadow’s efforts to cope with both Laura’s betrayal and her death, his unusual relationship with Wednesday/Odin and his growing commitment to Odin’s cause, and the almost “ordinary” sub-plot surrounding the mysterious town of Lakeside and its missing children. Throughout the novel, one watches Shadow change and grow into something much larger than himself, and it is at the same time mysterious and, somehow, inspiring.

The final battle, worthy of a Marvel comic, and the understated and mysterious conclusion to the novel, left my head spinning. A sequel, of course, is in the works. Word is that American Gods is about to be serialized by HBO, and as much as I would like to see what they can do with such a complex novel, I fear that it will lose something in the translation to screen, even with Gaiman writing the screenplay. Whatever the outcome, this is a book worth reading — and puzzling over.