Recently, I picked up from the library The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. I have a mind to give writing for the tween/young adult audience, just to see if it suits me. Having read most of the Harry Potter series, as well as a number of older suggested books like the Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, I chose to read Percy Jackson & The Olympians because of its popularity. After all, how better to understand the genre than to examine its principal examples.
The problem is, as I read The Lightning thief, I am distracted by its similarity to, even apparent imitation of, the Harry Potter series. Lest there be any confusion, however, I am not suggesting that Riordan’s writing is bad or a simple pastiche of Harry Potter. The prose is clear and fast paced, the characters distinctive if not especially deep (so far), and the reliance upon Greek mythology an interesting counterpoint to Rowling’s fairy tale inspired magical world. Rather, the tropes — which existed well before Harry potter, but were so perfectly distilled in that series — are constantly pulling me out of the narrative.
Harry was an orphan whose parents were killed when the villain came to kill Harry. Percy’s mother was killed when the monsters came to get Percy. Harry’s Aunt and Uncle; Percy’s step father. Hogwarts; Camp Half Blood. Slitheren; Ares’ cabin. Hermione; Annabeth. Ron; Grover. Lightning scar; lightning.
Of course, things don’t line up perfectly, but the point is that the presence of these tropes makes the genre glaringly obvious. YOU ARE READING A 5TH GRADE BOYS FANTASY ADVENTURE BOOK, proclaims the sub-text, so loudly and rudely that the actual-text gets drowned out. It is especially problematic in literature, because unlike film or comic books, say, where there may be striking visuals or other effects to distract you, all there are here are the words. Like a dream or a hazy memory, you build in your mind the world of the book from the lumber of your experiences, including previous entertainment you have consumed. This means that no matter how different the flavor (Greek mythology versus fairy tales) the tropes summon up the structure of the other. (Note that all of this is easily reversible if you are of a generation where you encounter Percy Jackson before Harry Potter; as an old tabletop gamer, I have many a times shuddered upon hearing how D&D stole X or Y from World of Warcraft.)
All that said, while these similarities are a distraction for me, I do not know they are actually a problem. They may, in fact, be a feature. Those tropes exist and become tropes for a reason. They must speak to the intended audience in a way that they do not speak to me as a jaded old adult. In fact, a quick survey of YA fantasy series summaries suggests many of these tropes are nigh prerequisites. I am forced to wonder, then, where do books that buck these trends fit in — in libraries, on kids’ bookshelves and on the Goodreads and bestseller lists.
For my part, I will finish The Lightning Thief and perhaps move on to the following books if I find Percy a compelling, if familiar, hero. I will read some of the other books touted regularly as great examples of young readers/adults lit, and I will write that story that is burning at the back of my brain — whether or not it fits the tropes so apparently prevalent in the genre. I can only know if the genre is a good fit for me by experimenting with it, after all.