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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero is like the Stanford Band

There may be imperfections, and you may not gravitate to the style, but it’s hard not to appreciate the finesse and power of Riordan’s seventh YA novel, a return to the world of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, with new characters (and old), familiar and novel conflicts, and a fraction less snark. Admission: I actually miss the clever chapter titles.

So what is this about the Stanford Band, and from a Cal grad? I’m not a fan of football, or marching bands, but I still always pay attention when I hear about the Stanford Band. (Plus, did I mention, I went to Cal and UCLA?) The reason is they’re always entertaining, not just because of their skills as musicians, not just because of their skills as a marching band, but also because of their irreverent antics. I remember them participating in a San Francisco Chinese New Year parade decades ago, when I was a volunteer, and the major domo, dressed up as an 8’ tall redwood tree, twirled around almost constantly to spread the costume’s branches. The band was goofy, inappropriate, and justifiably the center of attention. A spectacle on a spectacular stage.

Riordan puts on a parallel performance in The Lost Hero. [Spoiler alert: if you don’t want to find out anything about the story, why are you reading this? That said, there are a few spoilers below.]

The story focuses on three new characters: Jason, Piper, and Leo. Like Percy Jackson, who starts off The Lightning Thief solo (albeit with a satyr sidekick), these three are misfits. And, typical of a Riordan novel, the first sentence starts the novel off with a bang.

Jason wakes on a bus in the desert, surrounded by teenagers, and holding one girl’s hand, not knowing where he is, why he is there, or even who he is. It won’t surprise Riordan’s veteran readers to learn that this is because of the Mist that obscures the reality of gods and demigods from mortals. Apparently, it also affects demigods and satyrs, to a lesser extent.

Because, until that moment, and contrary to almost everyone’s memory, Jason had only moments before arrived on the bus.

Riordan stitches together a narrative that a lesser author would have cheapened, based on the dubious foundation of information hidden from the reader. It’s not cheap. It’s the Benz of “and then he woke up and saw it was all a dream” tricks. And it works from beginning to end. (This is the reason for the Stanford Band analogy.) Riordan weaves the memory loss theme into scenes from beginning to end, not in any visibly contrived way, but as the driving force of the plot. He pulls it off with as little visible effort as marching band formations at halftime, all precise, woven, and integrated with the music.

Jason wants his memory back; the only characters who know about his past aren’t telling, and are boldly manipulating him (guess what – they’re gods, duh); and the only way to satisfy the gods and find out threatens to kill Jason. Or worse.

(Way worse. It’s Riordan, duh.)

There are buildups to increasingly tense conflicts all the way up to the crisis, and even in resolution, the tension builds. The themes repeat and grow in strength as scene progresses to ever louder and more densely-packed scene.

Where The Lightning Thief took several chapters to complete the focal trio of characters for the series (Percy, his goofy guardian-satyr pal, Grover Underwood, and his difficult, antagonistic, brilliant future girlfriend, Annabeth Chase), Jason is in his compatriots’ company from the first paragraph, and the three, even without knowing of a connection, fit together well – eerily well – from the start. This will make every threat to their continued friendship (or survival) all the more powerful. It’s a fast start, and a nice refinement of the Riordan approach.

The most tenuous Stanford connection is Riordan’s obvious familiarity with the landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of my favorite books are set all or partly here: Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Is set largely in San Mateo (!); many sections of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt take place in his alternate-history Bay Area; Joanne duPrau, a Pensinsula resident, brings characters in the third Book of Ember up the Peninsula and (almost) into a post-apocalyptic, ruined San Francisco. For Riordan, it’s the location of the Titans’ stronghold (above Mt. Tamalpais, which he abbreviates as many locals do for the non-locals), and has something to do with Jason’s still-obscured path.

Riordan even works in Walnut Creek and Mt. Diablo. Nice. I’m kind of waiting for my backyard to show up.

OK, so I didn’t work the analogy very hard, but The Lost Hero has ensured that I will continue to pay attention at every mention of Riordan’s ongoing Olympians books. In fact, channeling the Oracle, I can foresee that I will be spending the next three to five years waiting for the next installment, with annual weekends of ecstatic consumption. Yeah, this one is worth the price of a hardback, kids.

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