Rick Riordan and Lester Papadopoulos are back. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that second name – That is Apollo, Greek god of the sun (among other things), and he is back to free the other Oracles that have gone dark. I just finished reading the latest installment, The Burning Maze, and I’m pretty shaken. Not only has Riordan captured the familiarity of the modernized take on mythology but also the emotional heft that he’s tapped into a few times before. It is easy to say that this is one of his best books.
Of course all great stories begin in a Labyrinth. We find our three heroes Apollo, Meg and Grover lost in the Labyrinth, pursued by monsters and fending them off with tomato plants (as one does). After this near-death experience, the trio emerge into a southern California ravaged not just by drought but by subterranean fires that are playing havoc with the environment—a burning maze that has infested the Labyrinth. Meg, as the prophecy in the second book foretold, returns to her roots here, giving a glimpse of early and despairing years.
In the midst of the new discoveries and weird demigods’ dreams, the matter of the burning maze is still something that must be tackled in order to free the third of the Oracles captured by the evil triumvirate of the Roman god emperors. Remember them? Oh, well there is a third one and he is the worst of them all. The third emperor, the main antagonist of this book, comes close to achieving his sociopathic ambitions with the help of his equally sociopathic mythological comrade-in-arms. There are a lot of new monsters to fight and the fighting scenes are intricate and fast-paced. Some of these scenes are skim worthy (depending on your preference) but they play important parts in the story, especially the heartbreaking ones.
Piper and Jason are drawn into the story, and this is somewhat complicated by what has transpired in their lives since they finished their own particular adventures. Piper in particular shines, saving the day countless times with her demigod gifts (as the daughter of Aphrodite) and with her fierce spirit. As Piper, Grover, Meg and Apollo are going into the Labyrinth, Piper clearly lets them know that she is not their “magical Native American”. She clearly lays down the law by telling our heroes that she does not do tracking nor offer spiritual wisdom just because she is Native American. It filled my heart that Riordan not only gave this strong female character, who is fully capable of fighting her own battles, a voice. Piper McLean is bad ass and so many times in this novel she has shown she is stronger than previous heroes that have come before her. Jason plays more of a support role this time around, offering important information to the team and also much needed man power at times. Meg and Grover makes a great eco-team, doing lots with their nature powers.
Apollo, in terms of monster fighting, falls short. However, he is far, far removed from the egocentric idiot he was when he first arrived in New York in a dumpster (Zeus punished him by casting him from Olympus and making him mortal. Long story. You can read more about it in the first book The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle.). His fear and pain are now almost fully human, and this not a weakness. There are fewer moments of sarcastic humor than in the first two books of this series, but there is still enough playfulness to counter the very real, very gripping dangers that Apollo, Meg, Grover, Piper, and Jason must confront. If Percy and Annabeth made an appearance then it would’ve been a true family reunion.
Where I found The Dark Prophecy to be a bit slow to get to the final conflict, The Burning Maze ignites a fire under our heroes. Not only do they have to work through the prophecy by the time limit provided, but there are others whose lives hang in the balance. Altruism? Selflessness? Sacrifice? These are concepts foreign to the god Apollo. However, over the course of two books, the now mortal Apollo has learned a great deal about strength that humans possess.
Apollo is quickly becoming one of my favorite heroes. When we first meet him in The Hidden Oracle, he is very much his formal self, trapped in a mortal body. He’s arrogant, selfish, annoying, proud, and downright insufferable. He’s not completely changed, but he’s certainly come far enough to begin feeling true human emotions. It’s the connections Apollo has made with the people around him that becomes the emotional centerpiece of this book. Meg, for example, is not an easy person to get along with, as she is very guarded and not very vocal about her emotions. But her connection to Nero and her devastating past shows Meg as a demigod with a tragic past and more importantly, a vulnerable human. Apollo does his best to understand what she’s gone through and he chooses to empathize with her predicament rather than find an easy solution to her problems. As an Olympian, Apollo was far removed from the heroes who lived so far below. Their mortal lives were simply a blip on his radar. Their mundane lives and obstacles were mere distractions in his immortal life. But now that he has lived among them, he can see them objectively. At this point he can confidently call them his friends. He has realized that humans are much more resilient than they seem. The human frailty is only outmatched by their ability to fight through the very things that hold them back. Apollo has not only offered gems of advice (not even mentioning he is the god of wisdom) but takes everything in and truly start to appreciate the nuances of human life.
This book is, as with all of Rick Riordan’s other novels, filled with laughs that appeal to both children and adults. It’s also full of the harsh realities of life. I loved the action and humor, but what stuck with me is the emotional journey this book took me on. From Meg to Piper to Apollo, we are taken on an introspective walk through these charactersk inner convictions and what being hero actually consists of.
Riordan’s books have a nearly perfect balance of humor and heartbreak. The gods, demigods and monsters can be ridiculous at times, but Riordan helps keep the consequences of our heroes’ actions very serious and very fatal. Apollo faces many trials in The Burning Maze and does not come out unscathed. This book will have you feeling everything from suspense to fear to sadness. I fully recommend this book to all ages if you enjoy modernized Greek story-telling but don’t expect to walk away from it without shedding a tear or two.
You can purchase the book here.
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