Thursday, October 21, 2010

Men ask for directions (and other signs of the apocalypse)

Which stupendously popular middle grade author uses the funniest chapter titles?

"Man ask for directions (and other signs of the apocalypse)" is a chapter title from The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan. Just one of many amusing concoctions that entice you to read one more chapter late at night. The Red Pyramid is the first book in his new series, switching from the Greek collection of gods in the Percy Jackson series to the ancient Egyptian set of psychos. I mean gods.

While the new cast of gods and mythic creatures is probably less familiar to most readers, there are still a lot of familiar elements: a pair of kids accompanied by a not-quite-human sidekick, trotting around the globe to various fascinating places (Paris, Cairo, Washington DC, Phoenix) and being pursued by various frightful monsters. And also, lots more of the humor we loved in the Percy Jackson series.

For instance:
Carter pulled out several lengths of brown twine, a small ebony cat statue, and thick roll of paper. No, not paper. Papyrus. I remembered Dad explaining how the Egyptians made it from a river plant because they never invented paper. The stuff was thick and rough, it made me wonder if the poor Egyptians had had to use toilet papyrus. If so, no wonder they walked sideways.
Our pair of heroes in the Red Pyramid are Carter and his sister, Sadie. They've been raised separately, but are thrown together in a quest to find their father after his rather explosive disappearance at a museum early on in the story. Carter is 14 and a couple years older than Sadie, but she has more than enough attitude to hold her own with him. The book alternates between their points of view, and they have different enough "voices" to be distinct (and quite quarrelsome). Sadie was raised in London, and has some delightfully British habits and mannerisms, and Carter is basically American, though he's been dragged all over the world by his archaeologist father, and as a result he's an Egyptology nerd. To make the sibling rivalry a little more interesting, Sadie takes after her white mother, and Carter takes after his African-American father. Here's just a sample of how Riordan captures the voice of the two siblings, and the tension between them:
I’d been to the British Museum before. In fact I’ve been in more museums than I like to admit - it makes me sound like a total geek.

[That’s Sadie in the background, yelling that I am a total geek. Thanks, Sis]

Anyway, the museum was closed and completely dark, but the curator and two security guards were waiting for us on the front steps.

“Dr Kane!” The Curator was a greasy little dude in a cheap suit. I’d seen mummies with more hair and better teeth. He shook my dad’s hand like he was meeting a rock star. “Your last paper on Imhotep - brilliant! I don’t know how you translated those spells!”

“Im-ho-who?” Sadie muttered to me.

“Imhotep,” I said. “High priest architect. Some say he was a magician. Designed the first step pyramid. You know.”

“Don’t know,” Sadie said. “Don’t care. But thanks.”

The basic plot is our heros must team up with an Eygtian goddess, Bast, to find their father and along the way also save the world from the destructive plans of another god, Set. In the process, Carter gets googly-eyed over a beautiful Egpytian magician, Zia, and Sadie - well, Sadie has the misfortune of having the hots for the god of the underworld, Anubis (yeah, it's a long shot). The plot also meanders a bit at times as the author tries to tie in various other ancient Egpytian myths, but he did the same thing frequently in the Percy Jackson series and still kept us entertained.

One thing that I think was overdone, though, were all the dream sequences, where either Carter or Sadie's soul, or ba, would travel outside of their body and convienently get to overhear critical conversations between other characters. Okay, Riordan used that technique with Percy quite a bit, too, but maybe he needs to find a new technique: this one is feeling too overdone.

However, here's a couple things that really stood out to me in this book, in a way that I haven't yet seen in the Percy books. There were some lyric-ly beautiful descriptions, such as this description of the sky goddess Nut:

... her skin was dark blue, covered with stars. I don’t mean painted stars. She had the entire cosmos living on her skin: gleaming constellations, galaxies too bright to look at, glowing nebulae of pink and blue dust. Her features seemed to disappear into the stars that shifted across her face.
Another thing I think was really well-done was the interplay of the spiritual elements of ancient Egypt into the plot. The Egyptians viewed the world at various levels: the regular physical dimension, and several spiritual dimensions, one of which is called the Duat. The different levels are beautifully and frightfully described here:

The scene would’ve been frightening enough, but now I saw it as Isis did. Like a crocodile with eyes at water level - seeing both below and above the surface - I saw the Duat intertwined with the regular world. The demons had fiery souls in the Duat that made them look like an army of birthday candles. Where Carter stood in the mortal world, a falcon warrior stood in the Duat, no avatar, but the real thing, with feathered head, sharp bloodstained beak, and gleaming black eyes. His sword rippled with golden light. As for Set - imagine a mountain of sand, doused with petrol, set on fire, spinning in the world’s largest blender.

Another part of ancient Egypt that I really like how Riordan embellished was the use of hieroglyphs. In the Red Pyramid, hieroglyphs are not just written characters; they sort of have life and a magic of their own, that really puts a new spin on "the power of the word

For writing techniques, I admire how Riordan can turn description into humor with his quirky anologies. Here's one of them:
Far far below, red liquid bubbled. Blood? Lava? Evil ketchup? None of the possibilities were good.
Finally, how can I end without mentioning Bast? - the cat goddess that befriends Carter and Sadie. She was my favorite character from a great cast of colorful, quirky, scary, unusual characters such as an albino crocodile, a basketball-playing baboon, an animated clay doll (sort of the Egyptian version of a voodoo doll, with its own attitude) and many others.

But Bast, like a cat, is part fickle and part loyal; part haughty and part foolish; part noble and part coward; and always entertaining. Here's a snippet of Bast that doesn't really do her justice, I'm afraid:
“Oh, you two look delicious,” Bast said, licking her lips. “No, no, er - , I mean wonderful. Now, off you go!”

I spread my majestic wings. I had really done it! I was a noble falcon, lord of the sky. I launched myself off the side walk and flew straight into the fence.

“Ha ha ha” Sadie chirped behind me.

Bast crouched down and began making weird chittering noises. Uh oh. She was imitating birds. I’d seen enough cats do this when they were stalking. Suddenly my own obituary flashed in my head: Carter Kane, 14, died tragically in Paris when he was eaten by his sister’s cat.

Tell me if you've encountered any other characters (including your own) that have an interesting play on animal qualities? I'm sure it's a frequently used technique in the fantasy/paranormal realms (werewolves would be expected to have some rather wolfish qualities, but wouldn't it be fun, for a twist, to have a leopardish werewolf?). Anyway, I'd love to hear of some more specific examples.


  1. Great review. I loved this book. Im even teaching it to my middle school students. So far theyre loving it too.

    Riordans new greek series, Heroes of Olympus, is great too.

    I cant think of any other animal human hybrids. Except usually vampires and female villains move like cats. If I think of any specific characters Ill come back.

  2. Great review. We're got this book at work. I'll have to take a peek at the chapter titles!

  3. Great review. I loved the Percy Jackson series but haven't started the two new ones yet. I need to pick them up!

  4. Terry Pratchett's "The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents" is brilliant for this or maybe I've got the question wrong, sorry!! Maurice is a cat who pretends to rid villages of rats for money. Of course the rats and cats are in it together! :-) The rats take their names from labels they find on the food they raid "Dangerous Beans", "Dark Tan" "Ham n Pork" etc. :-) The rats and cats are sentient - so very rat/cat like but with human-like foibles and desires.

    Take care

  5. Thanks~ I've been hearing different reviews about the book, but nothing with details. I love that you posted excerpts :)

  6. Rick Riordan does come up with interesting titles, I have read his 'Parsey Jackson' series- and that had interesting Chapter titles too.

    Interesting review, btw.

  7. Awesome review and I LOVED the papyrus t.p. I haven't read any of Riordan's books yet, so this may have to be a first. Thanks for the tip!

  8. We have this book, but I haven't read it yet. I wasn't really planning to anytime soon, but I think you've convinced me to give it a try!

  9. I have to agree about Riordan having the best chapter titles ever! Totally funny.

  10. I loved this book! I listened to it on audio the first half and then read the last half. I couldn't put it down if for nothing else because I wanted to know what the outlandish title would mean for the next chapter! My favorite one was the title for the Set Animal being put in a locker. Can't remember the exact title...

    Thanks for sharing! No other animal trait books are coming to mind, btw. Sorry.

  11. Okay , I admit I skimmed this because I haven't read it yet and I LOVE his stuff. I'm reading the Lost Hero right now with my son and it rocks, but it is conspicuously missing those kick butt titles!! My favorite? Percy Jackson - the last book "The Worst Bath Ever"

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  13. I loved all the excerpts, I think they show a lot of techniques that work well in ya and adult novels.

    I can't think of any hybrids right now, but I love when characters are compared to animals, even if it's just physical description. If someone smiles like a shark or wavers like a giraffe, it gives something shared for people to grasp onto.

    You commented on my post about archaeology the other day... It's cool you can place me based on what Iroquois ground I'm working with!



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