The Mark of Athena is the third book in a planned five volume series about the Heroes of Olympus. For series fans, there’s a lot to love: after group and couple separations in The Lost Hero (book one) and The Son of Neptune (book two), lead characters from both camps are finally brought together and couples reunited. Unfortunately, it’s four person narrative is little heavy on the relationship angst, even hinting at the dreaded romantic triangle. Fun myths, meh teenagers.
Representatives from the two opposing demigod camps are finally meeting to discuss The Great Prophecy about the war with earth-goddess Gaea. Their diplomatic meeting goes drastically wrong when The Argo II (after the Argonaut, natch) fires upon the Romans. The questers make their escape, but Octavius’ fury rouses the Romans into chasing the heroes as they embark on their quest. The prophecy says to go to Rome and once there, to close the Doors of Death that lead to the Underworld. As if that wasn’t enough, a demigod is being held hostage and will die if they aren’t able to rescue him in time. However, Gaea still has sinister plans afoot, and the full gods and goddess are unable to help as their dual natures are at war and preventing them from intervening (except for a select three). The ship requires a quick stop in Utah for repairs, and then Piper’s blade hints they should head for Kansas. From there to an Atlanta theme park, then up the seaboard and they are practically there!
Riordan does a nice job of weaving together the Greek and Roman pantheons, as well as finding new ways to modernize the gods. Echo and Narcissus were nicely integrated, and is no less irritating in this version than in the myth. Near the end, Riordan also does integrates a traditional mythological contest with an old foe, giving it a nice spin for the context of his series. I have to say, the last chapter or two of the book were the most enjoyable because of the external conflict and the mythology update.
There’s no doubt that Riordan is stepping up to the role Harry Potter had for inspiring reading in children, families and teens. A recent Tor newsletter links an analysis of Riordan’s Percy Jackson series that discusses how he challenges the idea of happy endings and involves a level of moral ambiguity not often found in young adult books (the writer specifically referred to the Luke storyline in Percy). I would agree, with some reservations. I too was moderately impressed at the situations the teens face in the course of the series. Jackson readily takes on the issue of absentee parents and unusual family structures. While the Olympus series continues the dysfunctional family issues, it also incorporates ethnic divides, as represented by the traditional Greek-Rome division. Classic conception of ‘good/bad’ and us/them’ isn’t so simple when your friends are from the opposing sides in a war of occupation. So I applaud Riordan for incorporating a degree of social and ethical complexity.
I also have to offer thanks for only dipping his toes into the stereotypical teen-relationship drama. Since the story is told from four perspectives, we have four teens worrying about how others perceive them and how much their other half reciprocates the emotion. That said, if we have a preponderance of couples in our teen heroes, why are none of them LGB, especially considering Greek culture was extremely supportive of male homosexuality? Not that I want more relationship issues in the series, but wouldn’t that really be pushing boundaries? How challenging is Riordan, really? Picky, picky; I know. But if you want to laud someone for challenging people more than Harry Potter, by all means, find someone who really steps outside the bounds.
Athena lacked some of the delightful humor of the prior two volumes (notably the goddess Isis and her rainbow collective, Amazon warriors and the harby), but was better able to maintain overall tension. The humor that is present is heavy handed: the sports-obsessed satyr as quest chaperone, an insult battle with Narcissus, a monster with nose hair and Chinese handcuffs. Foreshadowing is heavy-handed as well: “Annabeth had a horrible feeling this might be the last time Reyna and she ever acted in agreement.” There’s also the more legitimate foreshadowing of various prophecies, including one from Nemesis, visions in Piper’s magical blade and various dreams. I don’t mind the later set, as they are completely congruent with mythological reasoning, but with that in place, there’s no need to add in portentous phrasing as well.
The final ending was a satisfying denouement, a nicely-played updated myth, but for those sensitive to such things, it also (naturally) includes a cliff-hanger ending. I mean, in as much as book 3 of a 5 book series can be a cliff-hanger, right?