Divine comedy? A Greek god’s travails on earth (Book Review)

Title: The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo Book 1); Author: Rick Riordan; Publisher: Puffin/Penguin ; Pages: 432; Price: Rs.599

After a five book series starring Greek demigods, another quintet teaming up these with Roman demigods, a trilogy with Egyptian demigods and commencing a new series with Norse demigods, which other mythological tradition could Rick Riordan plumb for his new venture? He doesn’t need to find one, inverting his approach to make a god-turned-mortal his next protagonist.

The unlucky one is Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of music, poetry, prophecy, archery, plague, healing, and the sun.

Cast out of Mount Olympus by king of the gods, Zeus, for certain past transgressions, he falls to the earth (into a garbage skip in a not upscale part of New York). The god is now a 16-year-old with features and body shape not even remotely like his divine manifestation, and bereft of all his powers, but not his memory and certainly not his ego and arrogance.

His troubles don’t end with his unfortunate landing spot. He is set upon by two teenaged thugs, who reveal they were told of his location, before help comes from an quarter. Apollo however knows there is one place nearby where he can find refuge – and one person who can help him reach there – his cousin (technically) Percy Jackson, the son of sea god Poseidon and hero of Riordan’s Greek and Greco-Roman series, who lives nearby.

Though, with Percy’s help, he, and his unlikely saviour, eventually reach Camp Half-Blood – the sanctuary and training centre for demi-gods – in Long Island, but find it is also in disarray, with many campers having gone missing, no source of prophecy working and links with demigods outside getting cut off.

In spite of his initial inclination to sit out till the prohibition on him is lifted, he is drawn into helping the camp inmates, despite having no powers except what he draws out of himself grudgingly. Though he manages to help tackle some of the challenges, including rescuing some captured inmates and fighting off an attack by a Colossus, there is also the chilling realisation that the pantheon faces another major threat – more insidious and dangerous than the Titans and the Giants the demigods and the gods have faced and overcome in the past two series.

Who else are arrayed against them, will the older demigod heroes come out to help him, and how will Apollo counter the challenges and regain his godly form are some of the questions that we are likely to slowly know in this new series spread over the next years (going by past publishing schedules).

Though this work will be more relished and comprehended by those who have read the earlier two cycles – that of Percy Jackson and then the Heroes of Olympus, it strikes out a new course, despite remaining some links with the previous adventures. It certainly is no mere extension with earlier characters only putting in a cameo if they appear at all, while some secondary characters come into more prominence and the whole earlier premise is inverted – we no longer have youth finding out they are demigods and coming to terms with their divine powers, but here a god is a mortal and finds out he needs to develop some on his own.

And Apollo is perfect in the part. He is not a perfect god – none of the Greek gods were with their lust, jealousy, ego and anger – but his slow growth from a self-centred and self-pitying character makes the narrative compelling. And the surfeit of smooth satire at various aspects of western culture and history is also uproarious, as are the atrocious haikus with which each chapter begins – eg. “Scale on one to ten/How would you rate your demise?/Thanks for your input”.

Though meant for young adults, Riordan’s books (like Harry Potter) can be enjoyed by any age for the treatment is no child-like. There is a much diversity – one storyline even has a hijab-donning Muslim protagonist, while here homosexuality is not taboo with the god freely expressing his own bisexuality and nor are issues of disability, neglect or abuse brushed away.

For anyone who will enjoy old myths witty re-told, Riordan is an ideal author and this one of the best.

(23.05.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

vd/

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