Before I launch into this, I would like it to make it 100% clear that I love, adore and cherish Harry Potter with every fiber of my being. Those books were immensely important to me, and nothing I’m about to say can ever diminish their meaning and their significance. Clear? Okay.
Also to be made 100% clear is that the points below refer only to my own experience of the two book series in question. YMMV.
About a year ago, I read Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series. I was pre-advised that they were Potter knockoffs, lesser imitators, a fun read but only pretenders to Potter’s throne. So that’s what I went in expecting.
Only to find that I actually liked them better.
Well…that might not be entirely accurate. There were things that I felt RR’s series did better than JKR’s. The things that had always bothered me about Potter were the things that PJatO did well. It was as if someone took Potter and rewrote it specifically with my own criticisms in mind, addressing and correcting for each one.
So what are those points of difference in which I feel PJatO does better?
- Plot arc. Now, granted, the PJatO series is much shorter than Potter. It is five books instead of seven, and each book is also shorter. That in itself is part of my criticism of Potter. Each book got longer and longer, sometimes indulgently so. Some of it felt like bloat. With the PJatO series, I always got the feeling that RR had planned the whole storyline in toto, and then had chopped it into five roughly equivalent sections with appropriate endpoints and individual plotlines for his novels. With JKR…I often had the suspicion that she was making it up as she went along. Crucial plot points seemed to zoom in out of left field and become hugely important when we’d never heard of them before. At the end of book six, suddenly there are these horcruxes. Then in book seven suddenly there are these Deathly Hallows. And all at once there’s all this wand-master stuff that really ought to have been part of the whole seven-book mythology if it was going to provide the key plot point for the final confrontation. This never happened in the PJatO series. Things that were important in the end had been dropped in in previous novels in their appropriate places.
- Female characters. Holy God, this is the area where I really feel that RR has it all over JKR. In the Potter series, when we talk about female characters of significance, there is Hermione and then there is…well, Hermione. You could argue Ginny and Luna. But neither of them have nearly the presence that Hermione has (and I have huge issues with how Ginny was written, but that’s an essay for another day). Everyone else is more or less a name and a characteristic or two. In the PJatO series, when you talk about developed, significant female characters, it’s an embarrassment of riches. You’ve got Annabeth, of course. But also Rachel. And Clarisse. And Thalia. And Bianca. And Zoe. And Sally. And the multiple goddesses. And Silena. And more that I am forgetting. They are of various ethnicities and colors and body shapes and types and there are many of them who are fully rounded characters. There are enough girls present that being a girl is not their defining characteristic. There is none of that “the leader, the smart one, the fat one, the funny one, and the girl” shit here. There are enough girls that there is the smart one, the artsy one, the warlike one, the huntress one, the pretty one, the jerky one, and a few who do bad things like betray their friends and then redeem themselves. It’s almost as if…surely it can’t be…the girls are equally important as the boys, and allowed to evince a variety of personalities and characteristics! I find this particularly galling since RR is, of course, a man. And yet he’s managed to cram in many more compelling girls and women into far fewer pages.
- The shipping. I am showing my Harry/Hermione shipping colors here, and this of course is something that not everyone would agree with. But in PJatO, the analagous Harry and Hermione characters actually got together. The two characters who’d spent five books building a deep, meaningful friendship based on respect, affection and shared experiences (and bickering) were the ones who ended up in the romance.
- Percy. This is something I hadn’t completely realized that I was missing in Harry until I found it in Percy. I understand that part of the point of Potter is that Harry is an ordinary guy with an extraordinary destiny, and that appeals to a lot of readers, but for much of Potter I just yearned for Harry to be good at something (besides Quidditch). I ached for him to have actual skills. Competence porn is big for me, and I was so starved for Harry to be competent that I grasped at any little thing, because most of the time, he wasn’t. He succeeded through the skills of others who helped him, or blind luck, or the guardianship of more powerful wizards. The closest he ever came to exhibiting real competence was when he was training the DA. God, was that a welcome change. So as I read PJatO, it was like the Harry I had often wished for. Percy has actual skills. Percy is a badass in an unassuming package. He can control water, he is combat-trained, he is no one to be fucked with. He dipped himself in the river Styx to become invulnerable. He led an army of demigods to defend Manhattan in a battle that lasted half a book and did so with skill and competence. God, it was awesome. But even with his considerable powers, he is still goofy and insecure and pretty much a giant dork. Which is why the bad guys dismiss him, until he grabs them in giant water tentacles and crushes them to dust. Boo yah.
So friends, that is how I felt about the PJatO books.
And yet, HP fandom consumed me for almost five years, and I have not felt the slightest urge toward the PJ fandom. The PJ books are popular, but nowhere near the cultural phenomenon that HP was. I can’t say that the PJ books arebetter than the HP books. I don’t think they are. But I can say that in some ways I liked them better, I responded to them differently.
I like the competency and girl parts. I’m not so sure about the plot thing, though admittedly I haven’t actually finished the Percy Jackson series yet, so stuff that is coming together will doubtlessly do so. What gets me for them is I can’t shake the impression that these are plug-and-chug-characters-and-adventures-into-the-format-I-started-with-in-book-1.