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Stuff about (surprisingly) good reads

May 10, 2010

It’s been a long while since I made a post (on any blog) about recent readings (last time was to rant about how utterly Edding’s Dreamers series…well, blew). Well, time to do something about that.

One thing I can say about recent readings (well, it’s something I’ve been realizing for a while, but…)…I generally hate imaginary worlds. Middle Earth excepted (why that exception? If I were a gambling man, I would say it may have to do with the fact that Middle Earth was a setting that was nearly forty years old by the time the Lord of the Rings was published.). That doesn’t mean I’m going to hate any story set in them; just that they’re hardly likely to be stories that really hook me. Stories that leave me wanting for more of that world, more of that setting.

The stories that do that, by and large, lately, tend to be the ones that take a simpler approach to conceiving their world – alternate-earths. Take earth as we know it. Change one thing about it (generally of the “X type of legend is real” variety. And voila. Not all those stories are stories I like (confession time 2: I despise modern vampire stories. Not “stories with vampires”, but “vampires stories”), but by and large, they’re the ones that create compelling worlds that I want to see more of. Potter is, of course, the obvious and best-known case, but it’s hardly the only one.

A recent favorite of mine, in that vein, has been about the other wizard-named-Harry (Dresden, that is). Magical investigation in Chicago-that-has-magic-in-it? Hell yes. It helps that the characters are very, very fun. The plots may not be particularly original, the magic and fantastic creatures are right out of their respective mythologies, but it works. It’s a world I want more of, a world I might see myself writing fanfiction for (if I still did fanfiction).

But while the Dresden files series is very good, my biggest – and most pleasant – surprise lately (And by lately I mean “since my mother went and foisted on me a story I had never heard about, concerning a kid named Harry attending wizarding school) is another YA fantasy story: the Percy Jackson (and the Olympians) series. A bigger surprise, perhaps, than even the Potter books, because I knew nothing about the Potter series, whereas for Percy Jackson, I had seen ads for the film. My reaction to the said adds was along the lines of “Urgh, a Potter clone”.

The series, of course, turned out to be anything but. Oh, there are obvious similarities – they’re both YA fantasy, for a start, with all that this implies (‘special’ hero, with his small band of close-knit friends, for a start…) but it’s very much not a Potterclone). More importantly, the world was compelling enough for me to start a second read through…days after finishing the first one. The later Potter books excluded, I can’t think of too many books I read twice immediately after getting them. (The Lord might have gotten there, except I was only twelve when I first read it and didn’t quite have the intellectual fortitude go give it another read through so soon)

The concept is very simple and straighforward – Greek mythology is real. For the past millenias, the Greek Gods have watched over the growth of western civilization, Olympus and the gods being always at its heart (from Greece, to Rome, to France, to England…). Now it’s the twenty first century, Olympus is the 600th floor of the Empire States Building…and, well, it’S the greek gods, and they haven’t gotten any better at staying in their own beds, so demigods are plentiful. Very simple, very straightforward…and it works beautifully to create an extremely addictive setting.

It helps that the author has done the research on the greek myths, and that while some sanitizing is involved – eg, the most unpalatable qualities of the various mythological figures, such as the fact a few of them were known to have rapist tendencies) are generally discarded, but the general feel remains largely intact. The story really DOES feel like the universe of greek mythology adapted to the twenty-first century. Yes, that means the underworld is not Christian hell, and Hades is not Satan. (In the books, anyway; I have no idea how the movie handled it, but moviemakers have been known to do stupid changes).

At the same time, the story remain fresh: the adventures of Percy evoke (quite deliberately) several greek myths, but it never goes down quite to the level of being just a mere copy-paste of the old stories of the Argonauts, Perseus, the Odyssey and the Illiad. The incidents (the cyclope’s island, achilles in his tent, etc  are recasts within a whole new story, with new heroes who definitely share relatively little (except, in the case of the main character, a name) with the old ones.

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