Let it never be said that I am not a huge, devoted Harry Potter fangirl. There was a time when I was deeply involved in the fandom, a dedicated Potterphile. I was famous for it in the bookstore where I worked. I organized our store’s HP events, including the midnight release of “Order of the Phoenix.” I was the employee that customers were directed toward when they had Potter questions, or needed recommendations for their kids who’d read the books and needed something new. I’ve gone to midnight showings of all the films, gone to midnight releases of all the books. I’ve written truly epic amounts of HP fanfiction. The HP books touched my life in very real ways that I can’t really overstate. Because of those books I met one of my best friends, because of those books (and the fanfiction I wrote based on them) I got many actual paying writing jobs. My chance decision to pick up “Sorcerer’s Stone” and read it was a boulder dropped into the pond of my life that did not just generate ripples, but tidal waves. This may all seem overstated. Trust me. It isn’t.
So reading books that are clearly aimed at the post-Potter audience is somewhat bittersweet for me. In some ways, nothing will ever be Potter again. In other ways, Potter has its detractions. I am now six years removed from the intensity of my former Potter fandom, and while I am still devoted to the books, distance has given me perspective about some of the things I found lacking in the series, especially the later books when Rowling began to suffer from Authorial Bloat Syndrome. The way some of the crucial plot elements seemed to zoom in from left field, never having been spoken of before (masters of wands, anyone?) and how I constantly yearned for Harry to just be good at something. The lack of development of worthy female characters and Rowling’s failure at writing believable teen romance always bugged me.
Rick Riordan really doesn’t even pretend that he isn’t doing anything other than writing a series intended for the Potter audience. For crying out loud, his protagonist is a black-haired twelve-year-old with green eyes. The parallels are considerable. But if we can just agree that the concept is more than a little reminiscent of Potter, we can move on. And hey…the concept of Potter is more than a little reminiscent of “The Dark is Rising,” you know. Nothing new under the sun. And as the PJ books progress, the connections to Potter grow dimmer and dimmer.
I loved these books. In some ways…and I can’t believe I’m saying this…I liked them better than Potter. They aren’t as detailed and satisfying in some ways, but basically, everything that I felt Potter stumbled at, the PJATO books succeeds at.
Potter wins for sheer originality. Riordan’s creativity at taking the elements of Greek mythology and grafting them onto the modern world is great, but in Potter, Rowling created an entire world out of whole cloth. This is the woman who thought up Quidditch, and Muggles, and Hogwarts. You just can’t beat that. There’s a much greater connection to our world in PJATO, whereas in Potter we mostly feel as if we’re in the bubble of the wizarding world.
Riordan’s storytelling is tighter. Little is extraneous. If someone or something shows up in book one they’re going to keep showing up. Nobody appears out of nowhere, never having been mentioned before, with some crucial role to play. They’ve already been established before that happens. He does rely a bit too heavily on rescues in the nick of time, but it’s usually earned. The fifth book is more than half taken up by an epic battle, and it’s perfectly paced with extended battle sequences interspersed with small breathers to get new information or develop characters.
And Riordan has it all OVER Rowling for female characters. In Potter there’s Hermione and then there’s…Hermione. The only other girls who even come close to being real characters are Luna and Ginny, and even they aren’t much more than sketches. In PJATO there’s first and foremost Annabeth, Percy’s best friend, but there’s also Clarisse, and Silena, and Thalia, and Percy’s mom, and Bianca, and many others. The gender equality is much better in PJATO. And as a longtime Harry/Hermione shipper who was frustrated by that aspect of Potter, it was deeply satisfying that in PJATO, the Harry and Hermione characters actually get together, successfully building on their friendship for five books until it’s clear to them and everyone else that they love each other and will be together. And it’s just so…emotionally satisfying. Annabeth takes a dagger in the arm to save Percy’s life. Percy gives up the offer of godhood because he doesn’t want to be separated from her.
Finally, the thing that resonated with me the most is that Percy has actual skills. I wanted Harry to be competent at stuff so badly, and he really never was. Even he always said that the only thing he was really good at was Quidditch. I know I’m not alone in this. I remember how much we were all thrilled when in Order of the Phoenix Harry started teaching defensive magic to the others. Sadly this competence seemed to fade in later books. So much of what Harry accomplishes is by chance, or through the skill of others, or by an accident of birth. I think Rowling intended it like that. She didn’t want to write a superhuman character who had mad battle skills. She wanted to show that something other than prodigious magical talent could make you into a hero, that it could come from your character or the people you chose to surround yourself with. I get that. But dammit, sometimes I just wanted Harry to show some chops and whip some badassery on somebody.
Percy? He shows chops. He has formidable powers of his own that no one else has. He’s skilled with a sword. He’s strong, he’s smart, he’s powerful, and becomes more and more so as the books progress. He definitely whips the badassery. By the fifth book, he has become invincible thanks to a dip in the river Styx, with only one spot on his body where he can be harmed, and he is the unchallenged leader of the army of demigods opposing the Titan army. He isn’t superhuman. But he has skills. And I hungered for that in Potter and never got it.
These books will not occupy a place in my life that Potter did. I won’t be writing any fanfiction (though I’ve read a bit). I won’t be participating in the fandom. Nothing about PJATO is going to change my life. Probably. They’re not Potter. But I’ll sure as heck be re-reading them. And I’ll soon be reading the first book of Riordan’s sequel series, and waiting eagerly for the next book, which comes out this fall.