Stripped of his divine form and powers — but not his mindset — the Greek god of the Sun (and music, poetry, prophecy, plague and healing too) is now a mortal teenager who must undertake a perilous set of quests to restore his status. But apart from the dangers he will face, Apollo must also account for his past deeds.
In the second part of the five-part series — the third to be set in the Percy Jackson world of the Greco-Roman pantheon — Rick Riordan fashions another thrilling and witty account, with some vivid insights into divine and human natures, and some delightfully wicked shots at modern culture.
Apollo, now 16-year-old Lester Papadopoulos with bit of flab and a bad complexion, has to restore the principal oracles that have all gone silent. In the process, he finds out that his fellow gods and demigods face a greater threat than the Titans and the Giants they have overcome in the earlier two series — a trio of the worst Roman Emperors, made more dangerous by their huge wealth and corporate power.
Having found one oracle and identified one of the triumvirate as the tyrannical Nero, Apollo/Lester has left the relative safety of Camp Half-Blood, the demigods training area near New York, for the second part of his quest, supposed to take place in the American Midwest.
However, he is not alone — along with him is Leo Valdez, the mechanical genius from the "Hero of Olympus" series, and Calypso, the daughter of a Titan, who has chosen to become mortal after leaving the remote island she had been exiled for millennia. And yes, there is a special arrow that gives advice in Shakespearean-era English.
And as Apollo finds that danger or enemies can come up unexpectedly (but so can assistance or allies, though not the "deus ex machina" variety), he appreciates that the gods' penchant to send off — or even force — demigods or mortals on perilous quests is not very fair.
But having identified the second emperor (won't surprise those familiar with "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" — the movie, that is), done a couple of preliminary quests and reunited with his demigod "overlord", will Apollo be ready to face the oracle with the prophecy obtained in the previous adventure? This, in limerick form (reserved for the most lethal ones we learn), says "he plunged in a cave blue and hollow" and "was forced death and madness to follow".
Even if he undergoes this in his new vulnerable self, can he confront the ghosts from his past (one even literally) or even face those whose lives he has changed on a whim, by refusing to heed them or even unconsciously in his pride and selfishness.
It is this inversion of the usual mythological story motif — of mortals aspiring to become gods, the focus on the consequences of our actions and choices, the use of characters across the spectrum (ethnic minorities, alternative sexuality and even religions) and weaving in issues like parental neglect and abuse that makes Riordan's third venture in the same universe different from its predecessors as well as a most compelling read.
Leave alone the deft characterisations of the gods and heroes as rendered in the contemporary American millieu, he also scores with some spirited dialogue (especially from the arrow: "Now hast thou asked too many questions.. My wisdom doth not spew forth answers as if 'twere Google") and the indicative haikus with which each chapter starts, for example, "Fast-food restaurant/My life goal is realised/Any fries with that?"
Then there are some wicked (but valid) observations: Apollo, ruminating about the Emperor, notes that he "got too much power and fame at a tender age. It messed with his head" and the examples he goes on to quote are hilarious. And then since our hero is the god of music, expect plenty of references to pop culture (literally).
However, there is only one problem in this latest Riordan, more so if you happen to like it — you willl have to wait at least an year till the next.