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Analysis

Loss and Family in The Last Olympian

So, now we have reached the conclusion to Rick Riordan’s first series. With his 2009 novel The Last Olympian completed, so is Riordan’s warm-up period when it comes to his expanding diversity, and the depth of his themes. Riordan manages to balance humor, mythology, and some very serious questions about the world, about loss, and trauma. The Last Olympian is my favorite of this first series, and I think it is worthy of that esteem. So, let’s dive into it.

Spoilers for The Last Olympian and Riordan’s Other Works. 

So, What Happened?

The Last Olympian opens with Rachel and Percy on a beach, spending time together. Then Beckendorf and Blackjack interrupt, taking Percy on a mission, a week before the prophesied 16th birthday. They arrive at the Princess Andromeda, and Beckendorf goes to plant bombs while Percy distracts people. Kronos traps them, and reveals he has a spy at camp. Beckendorf sets off the bombs, allowing Percy to escape and destroying the Princess Andromeda. After an interlude in Atlantis, where Poseidon reveals his exhaustion after a year of fighting Oceanus, Percy returns to Camp, where Silena, Beckendorf’s girlfriend grieves. Chiron and Annabeth give Percy the whole Great Prophecy, which Percy takes to mean the fight will kill him. Chiron also reveals that Typhon escaped and all of the gods are fighting him, and not stopping him.

Nico takes Percy on a quest to the Underworld, where Hades captures Percy with the intent of allowing Nico to complete the prophecy and tells Nico his mother’s name. Nico breaks Percy out, and they head to the River Styx, where Percy takes on the Curse of Achilles. Upon return to the surface, Percy and the campers head to Manhattan, to defend Olympus. Morpheus puts the entire island to sleep, and Kronos and Hecate turn away any reinforcements with magic.

Despite Percy’s new invincibility, reinforcements from the Hunters, nature spirits, and the Party Ponies, the next few days are a long, slow retreat from the whole of the island to the Empire State Building. Highlights include Percy killing the Minotaur again, and him commanding two statue lions to “Kill Flying Pigs”. Lowlights include Silena pulling a Patroclus (INSERT LINK) against a drakon, revealing she was the spy, and dying, and Annabeth taking a poisoned knife to the shoulder for Percy. Several people die.

Kronos enters Olympus, and makes for the throne room, with Percy, Annabeth, and Grover in pursuit. Percy and Kronos fight and Annabeth manages to pull Luke to the surface when Kronos attacks her. Luke kills himself with Annabeth’s knife, and repents, keeping Kronos contained long enough to die. Afterward, the gods reward the demigods. Grover becomes a member of the Council of Cloven Elders, Annabeth becomes the architect that will redesign Olympus. They offer Percy immortality, and he turns it down, asking instead for the gods to acknowledge their children, and to grant the minor gods thrones and cabins. Rachel becomes the Oracle and makes a new prophecy. That evening, Percy and Annabeth enter a relationship. They spend the rest of the summer starting to build new cabins, and leave at the end of the summer happy, but remembering those they lost.

Step-Parents

One of the things that Riordan does well here is portray varied relationships between children and their step-parents. We see this through the foils of Percy’s interactions with Paul and with Amphitrite. During Percy’s brief recuperation in Atlantis, he meets Poseidon’s godly family, including his step-mother Amphitrite. “The lady in green armor stared at me coldly, then crossed her arms and said, ‘Excuse me, my lord. I am needed in the battle. … I’d never thought about it much, but my dad had an immortal wife. All his romances with mortals, including with my mom  . . . well, Amphitrite probably didn’t like that much” (36). Add to the cheating and the fact that this is their first meeting during a time of war, and the distance between the two of them makes sense.

But the relationship between Percy and Paul is healthy, sometimes even moreso than the relationship between Percy and Poseidon. Paul let Percy borrow his car even though he’s a week from being 16, in a safe situation. He encourages Sally to help Percy with the parental permission part of the curse of Achilles. Finally, we see this. “Paul grabbed a sword from a fallen hero and did a pretty fine job keeping a dracaena busy. He stabbed her in the gut, and she disintegrated” (319).

And the closeness between the two is shown with how Percy refers to Paul. Most of the time we see, my mom and Paul as the identifier used for the two of them, but occasionally, in high-stress situations, we see, “my parents” (271), where we see that he doesn’t differentiate between the two because of blood ties, that he loves both of them. Paul’s actions suggest that he loves Percy as his son too.

With Amphitrite and Paul, Riordan shows how having family thrust on you by marriage and cheating (Amphitrite), and choosing to become a member of someone’s family (Paul), changes how those relationships carry on. Also, Paul is an awesome parent and person, and it needs to be more widely recognized.

Trauma

In several small moments, often just a few words, alongside one allegory, Riordan acknowledges trauma in the characters he’s crafted. Often, children’s authors will not acknowledge the traumatic events their plots would instill in their characters, especially in media for younger children. Riordan, by contrast, deals with trauma and does it well.

We first see a few instances of trauma very early on, with the time spent on the Princess Andromeda. Blackjack says, “Man, I hate seeing that boat. Three years ago, Blackjack had been enslaved on the Princess Andromeda until he’d escaped … I figured he’d rather have his mane braided like My Little Pony than be back here again. ‘Don’t wait for us,’ I told him” (11). Percy recognizes Blackjack’s discomfort and gives him the ability to leave instead of staying to help with the exit. We also see Percy experience something similar later on the same boat. “Bad memories: a hallway ran past the cafeteria. Annabeth, my half brother Tyson, and I had sneaked through here three years ago on my first visit.” (19).

Later, we see a similar moment when a dream takes Percy to Medusa’s old lair, and Kronos’s base. “What I saw made me shiver, partly because the army was so huge, partly because I recognized the place” (233).

But it’s not just the heroes who Riordan allows to experience trauma. Prometheus, currently on Kronos’s side, reacts when Percy says, “The chained-to-the-rock-with-the-vultures-guy?’ Prometheus winced. He touched the scratches on his face. ‘Please, don’t mention the vultures” (217). This is significant because Riordan is not demonizing his antagonists. He makes them with their own personalities, their own rationales, and their own traumas. That latter is something that even authors that acknowledge trauma in their protagonists don’t always do.

Finally, when Percy witnesses Nico’s summoning of Maria diAngelo, and discovers the truth of how she died and the curse that Hades laid on the Oracle, we see an allegory for trauma responses in the River Lethe. After Zeus tried to kill Bianca and Nico, and succeeded in killing Maria, we see Hades order Alecto to, “Wash their memories clean in the Lethe” (209). When traumatic events occur in childhood, often the victim suppresses the memories, in a type of dissociative amnesia. Here, we see the literal embodiment of this trauma response in the washing in the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

The Collateral Damage of War

Just like trauma, Riordan doesn’t shy away from the collateral damage that occurs because of his plot, and again, does so on both sides. Aboard the Princess Andromeda, Percy thinks, “Back on my first visit to the Princess Andromeda, my old enemy Luke had kept some dazed tourists on board for show, shrouded in Mist so they didn’t realize they were on a monster-infested ship. Now I didn’t see any sign of tourists. I hated to think what had happened to them, but I kind of doubted they’d been allowed to go home with their bingo winnings.” (15) Riordan avoids directly saying that the tourists were eaten by monsters, but the implications are there.

Beyond that, comes Morpheus putting Manhattan to sleep. He managed to stop the cars moving, but there was still collateral damage.

 “Every so often we’d come across pedestrians who’d fallen asleep right in front of a car, and we’d move them just to be safe. Once we stopped to extinguish a pretzel vendor’s cart that had caught on fire. A few minutes later we had to rescue a baby carriage that was rolling aimlessly down the street.” (174)

Fires don’t just limit themselves to pretzel vendors. “A plume of black smoke curled into the sky somewhere over Harlem.” (200). It’s another day and a half before anyone wakes up, and people almost certainly died in the fire, from smoke exposure if nothing else.

The campers also do some looting, Percy tries to put a stop to the more enthusiastic Hermes kids, but they wind up taking medical supplies. The Aphrodite girls grab perfume that monsters hate. And to communicate they grab phones from sleepers, and they take bikes and motorbikes.

But Riordan doesn’t allow us to escape the collateral damage on the other side, either. After the Princess Andromeda explosion, Percy recalls the enemy demigods on the ship. “I’d convinced myself that destroying the ship was all right because they were evil, they were sailing to attack my city, and besides, they couldn’t really be permanently killed. Monsters just vaporized and re-formed eventually But demigods . . . … ‘They were brainwashed!’ I said. ‘Now they’re dead and Kronos is still alive” (39-40).

Loss

Many people die in this book.

Beckendorf was the first. “Beckendorf was supposed to go to college in the fall. He had a girlfriend, lots of friends, his whole life ahead of him. He couldn’t be gone” (31). His loss ripples through the whole camp, and we see it especially in Silena’s reactions to his death. She withdraws, and when she offers Percy and Annabeth some bonbons she says they’re tasteless to her, grief numbing her ability to enjoy things, even chocolate.

Michael Yew is next. “I turned to thank Michael Yew, but the words died in my throat. Twenty feet away, a bow lay in the street. Its owner was nowhere to be seen. ‘No!’ I searched the wreckage on my side of the bridge. I stared down at the river. Nothing” (193). They never find his body, even after Percy asks the other Apollo campers to keep searching.

Loss affects even the gods. When Zeus’s explosion killed Maria diAngelo, Hades curses the Oracle, to take some of that grief out on someone. Even on someone as tangentially involved as the one who gave the prophecy.

Silena is the most relevant example of grief in the latter half of the story because Silena dies as she brings the Ares cabin with her, and reveals she was the spy just before she died. Even her grief makes it’s way to her final words. “Charlie . . .’ Silena’s eyes were a million miles away. ‘See Charlie” (297). Her friend, Clarisse, in her grief, drove the armies away in her attempt to exorcise her own grief. Percy and the rest refused to acknowledge her as a traitor.

As for Luke, Percy, Annabeth and Grover grieve over him while they wait for the gods, but Hermes was the most affected, stopping the Fates before they took his body away so he could see his son one last time.

This quotation, from the middle of the battle sums up the aura of this section best, I think. “Too many of our friends lay wounded in the streets. Too many were missing” (257).

Family

Riordan displays a diverse way of how family works together and how family comes together as well.

One of the threads that winds through the narrative is Nico’s research into his family, given his lack of memories. In the beginning, we see him take Percy to Hades’s Palace in return for Hades telling him his mother’s name. Afterwards, he tries to summon her, Bianca intervenes, he ignores her, and summons Maria anyway, which causes a vision of the day Zeus killed her. We see part of the reason he’s so fixated on her when Hades insults him when he brings Percy. “Father,’ Nico said. ‘I have done as you asked.’ ‘Took you long enough,’ Hades grumbled. ‘Your sister would have done a better job” (121). Hades’s disapproval made him seek out the other side of his biological family, and make’s Hades’s recognition of him at the end of the novel mean more.

Another foil is between Sally Jackson and May Castellan, the mothers of the feuding Percy and Luke. Both women are concerned with their children, but both give their blessing for them to bathe in the River Styx. Sally asks that Percy set up a signal for her, so she’ll know that he’s okay, and May keeps making Luke’s favorite foods for him and hoping he’ll come home. As a side note, I am not talking about mental disability in the context of May Castellan because it requires more research than I could do on my own and the fact that the idea of children being removed from the homes of mentally ill parents makes me wordlessly furious, and I know that the situation is a little different here, but enough of the fury still carries over that I cannot talk about it. I don’t approve of all of Riordan’s portrayal of mental illness, but it’s mental illness caused by magic, which complicates things, which leads to the aforesaid research, which leads to me not talking about it much, (though this paragraph is mostly about this issue), because I don’t want to be insensitive.

Moving on. Riordan doesn’t only focus on blood family, he also shows family of choice very effectively in the relationship between Luke, Thalia, and Annabeth.

“My family hates me,’ the girl said. ‘They don’t want me. I ran away.’ Thalia and Luke locked eyes. I knew they both related to what she was saying. … Thalia grinned. ‘We’d better get going, Annabeth. We have a safe house on the James River. We’ll get you some clothes and food. ‘You’re . . . you’re not going to take me back to my family?’ she said. ‘Promise?’ Luke put his hand on her shoulder. ‘You’re part of our family now. And I promise I won’t let anything hurt you” (151).

That sibling bond is enough to break Kronos’s control over Luke in the final confrontation when Annabeth reminds him of that promise.

Finally, we have Hestia, who is family and home incarnate. Hestia says, “I am here because when all else fails, when all the other mighty gods have gone off to war, I am all that’s left. Home. Hearth.” (103). Family is the unspoken word at the end of her sentence. Hestia seems like the most levelheaded of the Olympians, and she tends the campfire at Camp Half-Blood, and talks with those who approach her there, who as she says, ‘visit family’.

ADHD and Dyslexia

Riordan also continues his efforts at raising awareness of ADHD and Dyslexia through literature in this book. Percy has to read the Great Prophecy, and, due to his dyslexia, fumbles the first line. “A half-blood of the eldest dogs . . .’ ‘Er, Percy?’ Annabeth interrupted. ‘That’s gods. Not dogs.’ ‘Oh, right,’ I said. Being dyslexic is one mark of a demigod, but sometimes I really hate it. The more nervous I am, the worse my reading gets.” (55). I do like that Riordan acknowledges that sometimes people hate their disabilities because it’s not invalidating the people that have them, but expressing frustration that they feel.

We also see ADHD representation here as well. “There were messages from demigods, nature spirits, and satyrs all around the country, writing about the latest monster activity. They were pretty depressing, and my ADHD brain did not like concentrating on depressing stuff.” (68). That last sentence is pretty much the reason one of my friends with ADHD gave up on trying to follow politics after the 2016 election.

Conclusion

So ends the first five novels of Riordan’s prolific author’s list. As I said in the intro, Riordan’s warm-up period with including diversity ends now, because from now on he gets better at embedding diversity into the story continually, not just name dropping it once or twice and then continuing with the plot.

Next month I will be back with The Red Pyramid, and I’ll be continuing through the three Kane Chronicles novels for the next three months or so. Then we’ll return to the world of Greek mythology with the Heroes of Olympus series. Thank you for sticking with this series, and I look forward to diving into Riordan’s interpretation of Egyptian mythology with you over the next few months!

Image courtesy of Disney Hyperion

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Angela is a full-time fantasy nerd. She is either reading a novel or talking about one. Or is watching Lord of the Rings for the hundredth time. Character archetypes and cultural context always fascinate her.

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