“The Red Pyramid” A Promising But Iffy Series Opener

The first book in The Kane Chronicles, a middle grade fantasy trilogy from Rick Riordan, promises an interesting world, but fumbles the delivery.

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.

This review was originally posted on Goodreads earlier this year. I have since reviewed the next one! (I liked it a bit more.)

An Uneven Adventure in Riordan’s “The Throne of Fire”

After the somewhat scattered conflict in The Red Pyramid, the first installment of Rick Riordan’s Egyptian mythology-inspired Kane Chronicles, The Throne of Fire, its sequel, has a bit of cleaning up to do.

It’s no secret that Riordan’s series tend to start okay and end fantastic––the vast gulf in mastery between The Lightning Thief and The Last Olympian attests to it––but The Red Pyramid seemed particularly unfocused. Cycling through mentors and fetch quests as it does, it denies itself both the camaraderie of a usual quest story and a truly satisfying ending, which doesn’t bode well for The Throne of Fire, a tome of comparable length and at least as many macguffins.

If you persevered through The Red Pyramid, though, take heart: The Throne of Fire swerves cleanly away from many of its predecessor’s pitfalls, the result being a tale with both strong sinews and thrills of its own to offer, if not awe-inspiring efficiency.

In the few months since the events of The Red Pyramid, Carter and Sadie Kane, the children of famous archaeologist and secret magician Julius Kane, have set up camp at Brooklyn House, now a clandestine training facility for the next generation of sorcerers, hiding in the mortal world in plain sight. As before, the threat of total annihilation looms in the form of one chaos snake Apophis, who resides in a magical prison but gets closer by the minute to breaking free.

In order to stop him, the Kane siblings have hatched a plan to stir the sun god Ra from his aeons of slumber, but in order to do so, they must fetch the three portions of the Book of Ra, at least one from under the nose of the magical establishment, which hasn’t been too keen on our intrepid protagonists since they shook things up in book one.

As always, Riordan has buckets of fun adapting the elements of ancient lore to his style of comedy, and even if it’s not quite up to Percy Jackson‘s par (what is, honestly?), it offers the familiar, crowd-pleasing fun of an adventurous blockbuster, and with the extra burden of foundational worldbuilding and initiation already taken care of, the book moves at a brisk but practiced pace, with some extra room for the quieter, character-heavy lulls that Riordan happens to excel at.

With the new recruits at Brooklyn House featuring heavily at the beginning, though, it’s a bit of a surprise that they’re so sparse in the rest of the book. Instead of fellow magicians for companions, Riordan has Carter and Sadie seek out the remaining Book of Ra fragments with the god Bes, another mentor figure to add to the Kane Chronicles‘ extensive collection.

In execution, he’s a perfectly enjoyable addition to the traveling party, but as his part plays out at the climax, there’s a looming sacrifice that you can see coming; one that echoes, albeit faintly, an issue at the heart of The Red Pyramid. It’s a flaw that plagues many a fantasy series, especially in the middle grade and young adult categories, and it saps the magic of its narrative power with astonishing speed:

The Kane Chronicles, my friends, has a stakes problem.

So far, Riordan has only been willing to sacrifice mentor characters he’s set aside for that specific purpose, and even then, in terms of losses, he’s been rather stingy. It’s not that every fantasy novel has to come with a mountain of casualties, but if the fate of the world is at stake, you can’t expect a bulletproof cast of supporting characters to do the trick, and, furthermore, you can’t expect the toll of The Throne of Fire‘s conclusion to cut it going into book three.

Which is why, as big a change as it would’ve meant for the manuscript, it might have been better for one of the named characters from the beginning to accompany the Kane siblings on their quest for the Book of Ra…and proceed to bite it. The loss of a fellow young magician would’ve been a punishing answer to our co-protagonists’ first steps into leadership; a more forbidding final note, certainly, than the one we got.

The second installment of a trilogy will often end with a shocking defeat (think The Empire Strikes Back or Catching Fire), and with Apophis gearing up to end the world on the last page, it’s storytelling negligence on Riordan’s part to deny the trilogy its dark night of the soul right where it was most needed. Now, as big as the threat is, and as much danger as it’s meant to pose, I still don’t believe it capable of making our heroes hurt.

Luckily, however, Riordan adds the spice of earthly conflict to temper the larger celestial one. The House of Life, sorcery’s primary authority, has a Chief Lector in Michel Desjardins who is neither entirely friend nor entirely foe. In between monster fights and wild goose chases through various world cities, we get glimpses of an ancient institution fraying at the edges, its leadership in jeopardy and its priorities ill-chosen.

Though the House of Life’s woes don’t take up much of The Throne of Fire’s page time, it wouldn’t be nearly as rich without them, and a certain development near the end suggests a greater presence of this subplot in the trilogy’s concluding volume. It’s really the complexity in this institutional conflict that makes it the powerful foil to the epic good-evil apotheosis it is, and when Riordan plays it right, it hits with the same resonance, if not more.

Whether the trilogy sticks the landing remains to be seen, but with the tools at hand, Riordan has a chance to make it so. And if his stories are anything to go by, a chance is no small thing.