Rick Riordan, the keeper of many a fond middle school memory, returns to the mythological fun and archaic-curio-prompted adventures that made his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series such an unflagging romp in The Red Pyramid, the first in a trilogy of middle grade fantasy novels inspired by Egyptian mythology. Though the elevator pitch is pretty much the same, this volume departs from Percy Jackson in some really promising ways, but on the other hand, an unwillingness to make narrative sacrifices that stick and consistently floppy action sequences tank this book’s sense of scale.
Instead of building to an apocalypse like he did in PJO‘s five installments, Riordan threatens the end of all life as we know it from the get-go, and fittingly, the adventuring party––estranged siblings Carter and Sadie Kane, along with a rotating door of various magical and/or godly chaperones––loses members to hordes of scorpions, crocodile gods, and haughty sorcerer leadership, to much tragic fanfare. However (and this is the sticking point), if I had a nickel for every time a character shockingly returned from almost certain death, I probably wouldn’t have more than 25¢, but it’s odd that such a Marvel-movie bait-and-switch becomes habit here for a storyteller who’s demonstrated a perfectly competent sense of stakes elsewhere. The thing about bringing characters back from the dead is that it’s a plot tool that can be worn down with repeated use. Do it once and it’s a triumphant return that sets a stirring reunion in motion; do it with The Red Pyramid‘s frequency and no threat of annihilation or death you make will carry any weight, ever again.
Also, concerning the rotating door of chaperones: this hero’s journey has a few mentors too many. Part of the fun of a long and arduous quest is the familiarity it inevitably breeds between our characters. Percy, Annabeth, and Grover leave Camp Half-Blood strangers, and come back an iconic trio. When you sacrifice that commitment to a set of characters for the whole duration of the journey, instead trotting out multiple distinctive figures who essentially fulfill the same narrative role (and––even more egregiously––disappear under dangerous circumstances only to return for round 2!!), you cheapen the scaffolding of your plot, you cheapen any hope of a connection your characters might have, and you cheapen the potential of your characters coming off memorably. You can have Amos, Thoth, Zia, or Bast. Maybe even more than one. But you cannot have all four.
Interestingly, as the strengths of Percy Jackson become weaknesses here, the shortcomings of the very same get a fresh treatment and become The Kane Chronicles‘ strongest assets, particularly as it concerns worldbuilding. In PJO, things feel rather haphazard, like the internal logic is a desperate slap of glue to hold the various mythic hijinks together (it more-or-less works because Riordan has so much fun both parodying quest stories and winking at the audience through his own), but the world of The Kane Chronicles has depths and conflicting factions that beg to be further explored. You get the most enticing sense of richness here: little corners of our journey hint at whole novel-worthy stories transpiring just out of our sight. It’s enough to make you wish this flighty tale had a bit more focus––I’d probably be falling over my feet with praise for whatever mentor character we might have gotten for the whole thing, if only Riordan had stuck to them.
I’m particularly intrigued by the potential further explorations of the House of Life, the ancient association of magicians, hold: I want to meet more new recruits and see what it’s like to train under this order. I want to see what animates the passionate debate afoot in the highest levels of the maybe-trustworthy, maybe-not magical establishment. I want to see more of the Chief Lector and his shifting loyalties.
And, damn it, I’m reading the next one.