Rick Riordan’s The Ship of the Dead (Goodreads review)

The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3)The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short review: this is a fun, funny, and well-written book that is just as good or better than the previous books in the series. It’s a great book to read with your kids, or just by yourself.

Magnus Chase, Alex Fierro, Samirah al-Abbas, Hearth, Blitz, and a cast of einherji race against the launch of Naglfar, the ship of the dead, to once again stop the inevitable tide of Ragnarok. Along the way they pick up the pieces of what they did in the previous book The Hammer of Thor, and discover more about their mysterious parents, their demigod powers, and even find a little romance. This book is a focused thrill ride with more action and less comedy than its predecessor, although it still retains the picaresque quality of other books in the series. Though the heroes are successful, the series ends unresolved and leaves plenty of room for more adventures with these characters.

I have mixed feelings about Rick Riordan’s body of work, but in the end Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard is an excellent series that is a lot of fun to read. While reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and several of the Heroes of Olympus titles, I grew weary of Riordan’s repetitive devices, tone, and overtly educational and preachiness. In Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Riordan still uses the same devices he did in The Lightning Thief to break with the main character’s point of view and include information the character wouldn’t otherwise know. Magnus Chase, for example, repeatedly dreams or hallucinates events that are happening elsewhere in the world, that tell him about his antagonist (Loki, in this most recent book and the previous book in the series, The Hammer of Thor). All the characters in The Heroes of Olympus also did this, repeatedly dreaming of what the other main characters were doing despite those characters’ explicitly-titled point-of-view chapters. In this book, it makes a lot more sense, given the first-person storytelling, and I wouldn’t mind it if Percy Jackson didn’t do the exact same thing, and Riordan couldn’t have easily used other devices to let us know what Loki was up to. These passages could almost be left out of the book.

The next thing is that Riordan seems incapable, despite his great skill, of writing anything other than snarky teenagers. This would be worse if real teenagers weren’t this way, but Magnus sometimes seems a little too clever for his own good, which clashes with some of his other qualities. He’s never really out of character, but he sometimes seems a little too dashing and smart-mouthed for someone who, at his core, has been through so much hardship. I don’t mind that all the adults are jerks, because when you’re a teenager, that’s what the world is like, and what preteen or adolescent would want to read a book where the teenagers get solid wisdom and don’t have to solve their own problems?

The other repetitive element in Riordan’s books is how the characters come in contact with the gods. The whole point of these books is that mythology is not really mythological, but is about real characters who are still active today, not in some distant past. All these books have a picaresque quality where teenagers come in contact with certain mythological figures and it always follows the same overtly educational pattern: “Oh, wait a minute, you’re [so-and-so, the god of such-and-such, who in this one myth did these particular things].” This gets a little old.

The last thing I don’t like is that particularly the Magnus Chase books, and to some extent the Heroes of Olympus books, bear the marks of an author who feels like he needs to educate and instill social values on his (impressionable) readers. This is a trick: lure the preteen reader in with a cool story about gods and monsters and swords and snarky teenagers (maybe even some kissing?) and insert the narrative you think will make the world a better place. It’s trendy. I fully expected there to be a police shooting in this book, and I was genuinely surprised when there wasn’t. Again, I wouldn’t mind if this weren’t repetitive, one-sided, and self-righteous, as if the author knows better than his readers or their parents. It’s very Hollywood, even if Riordan does it with fully mythological backing. Alex Fierro, for example, is gender-fluid because of how he/she came to be in the world, for very good reasons within the plot, and the characterization and Alex’s qualities make a lot of sense, with backup from Norse mythology and Scandinavian history. That doesn’t make it any less trendy, or make the portrayal any more well-rounded.

After all, however, Riordan manages not to let any of that overshadow a very good story and a fun read. This is a laugh-out-loud book, way better than its predecessors in the series and in his others. Even if Riordan is still doing many things the same way, his books just keep getting better and better. The material in these books is more mature than in the Percy Jackson books, given that the characters are older. The story is also just more interesting, with a more intricate plot, and more interesting characters. I highly recommend this book for reading with your kids.

As much as I decry Riordan’s explicitly educational approach, if you want your kids to learn about Norse Mythology or classic literature, this is a great way to get them into it. It’s not a substitute, but definitely as much fun and closer to the source material than Marvel movies or anything else you’d let your kids watch. Also, despite the somewhat mature material and YA writing style, Riordan is easy to read and kids as young as nine find it approachable for reading on their own. My son begged me to keep reading every night after I finished two chapters. I think yours will too.

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