Publisher: Puffin (Penguin)
Pages: 375 (Paperback)
Series: Percy Jackson #2
The way he said my name sent a chill down my back. Nobody called me ‘Perseus’ except those who knew my true identity. Friends… and enemies.
Percy Jackson has had a quiet year. Not a single monster has set foot in his New York school. But when a game of dodgeball turns into a death match against an ugly gang of cannibal giants, things get… well, ugly. And then Percy’s friend Annabeth brings more bad news: the magical borders that protect Camp Half-Blood have been poisoned, and the only safe haven for young demigods is under threat.
To save their camp, Percy and his friends must embark on a quest that will take them into the treacherous Sea of Monsters and a desperate fight for their lives.
Graaaar! Where were these books all my childhood? Damn Rick Riordan for not writing these a decade earlier!
Suffice to say, I enjoyed this book. A lot.
Picking up a year later after the events in the previous book it got off to a slow start. The first few chapters felt rather like a rehash of the start of The Lightening Thief: it’s the end of school year and Percy is unpopular and picked on because he’s befriended and defends the ‘weird’ guy – who inevitably turns out to be more than just a ‘weird’ guy – followed by a monster attack and a run to the safety of Camp Half-Blood. Once there, however, things pick up.
Camp Half-Blood is no longer safe – somebody has poisoned the magical tree that protects the camp and monsters are breaching the barriers to attack. The gods have blamed Percy’s mentor, Chiron, and replaced him with the wonderfully horrid Tantalus. Only the Golden Fleece can purge the poison from camp and renew its protections. But the Fleece lies all the way across the mythical ‘Sea of Monsters’ and is currently in the possession of one of the worst of them all – the man-eating cyclops Polyphemus – who has captured Percy’s best friend Grover. If Percy and his friends can’t travel through the dangerous Sea of Monsters and get there in time Camp Half-Blood will be destroyed and Grover eaten by a sheep-loving monster.
The stakes feel a lot higher and far more real than they did in The Lightning Thief with its rather generic threat of a war between the gods. Here the things at risk are people and places both the reader and Percy are more familiar with, and I felt far more invested in Percy’s quest to save them than I did in the previous book. It probably helped that Odysseus and Jason are probably my favourite heroes and that I’m a complete sucker for adventures set out at sea – and this book was heavily based on the Odyssey with Scylla and Charybdis, Circe, Polyphemus, and the Laestrygonians all making appearances. The tone felt more in keeping with the idea of classical greek myth and epics than the previous book, which was Orpheus as a modern roadtrip with added monsters.
Also an improvement in this book was the characterisation. Both Percy and Annabeth feel a bit more fleshed out after a whole book getting to know them and a whole host of side characters have been introduced. Tyson and Tantalus are my absolute favourites of these, but I was really glad to see other campers being given names and a bit of personality as well – one of the things that bothered me in the first book was that Percy only seemed to interact with about three named half-bloods while he was at camp and the rest were simply nameless blobs on the sidelines. They still don’t play a big part, but it’s nice to see that they’re being acknowledged and aren’t just props but characters in their own rights.
What I really like about Percy Jackson though is Riordan’s ability to seamlessly include and explain a whole host of Greek characters and monsters without letting up either the fast pace or humourous tone to indulge in an unwelcome info-dump. There’s no question that he knows his stuff and he strikes the balance just right at giving a quick overview for those who aren’t familiar with the material, and not getting it wrong or being patronising to those who do.The handling of Tantalus is probably my favourite example from this book. One of the most infamous Greek criminals he is so not the person you want running a children’s camp that his appointment – and his cavalier attitude to monsters trying to pick off his charges – is just hilarious. The way Riordan explained his backstory and included and adapted the punishment placed on him by the gods is just an added stroke of brilliance. There are some twists somebody with knowledge of Greek mythology might spot (the parentage of the cyclopes) but it doesn’t impede on enjoyment at all.
The Sea of Monsters as well as being a brilliant self-contained storyline itself, also develops and advances the overarching series plotline wonderfully. So much so that even bare bones reviews for future books will likely contain spoilers for the first two. The villain and his top henchman are taking a more active and less sneaky role, working almost in the open to recruit a whole host of mythological nasties that makes me really excited to see how the final confrontation’s going to go down. There’s also the reveal of the real reason the ‘big three’ aren’t allowed to have children. It may be another prophecy (in a genre where every protagonist seems to have a prophecy about them) but I prefer it to the ‘powerful demigods started WWII’ reason given in the last book. Maybe because I’m old enough that my grandparents fought and lost friends and relatives in WWII but I always find the ‘it was caused by magic’ explanation found in a lot of fantasy and urban fantasy rather distasteful. Now that a better reason has been given I can ignore that one little niggle that much easier .
In short, a wonderful novel that can be enjoyed by both children and adults, mythology lovers and the uninitiated. And it’s also that all too rare thing: a sequel that is better than the first book. I hope the trend continues, but I suspect that – with it’s references to the Odyssey and the introduction of Tyson and Rainbow – this will continue to be my favourite of the series for quite some time.