Riordan starts to weave new themes into his series from this point on. While The Lightning Thief did okay on issues of representation, Sea of Monsters does better. With his typical exquisite plotting, Riordan writes a story that handles everything his first book did and more, but better. Follow me, as we talk about Tyson, Clarisse, Grover, and Sea of Monsters.
Spoilers for Sea of Monsters and Riordan’s Previous Works.
So, What Happened?
Sea of Monsters starts with Percy and Tyson on their last day of school. Percy had a bad dream last night, that Grover was captured by … something. Cannibal giants attack during gym class, where Annabeth saves Percy at the last moment. Annabeth hates Tyson immediately. The three head to camp, taking a cab with three strange drivers that tell them where they need to go. Once arriving at camp, they find Clarisse and other campers under attack, and Thalia’s tree poisoned and dying. After the fight, Annabeth reveals that Tyson is a Cyclops. Tantalus replaces Chiron as the activities director, and he favors Clarisse. Poseidon claims Tyson, and Percy becomes a pariah for having a monster as a half-brother. Percy also isn’t happy about the situation.
After a while and more dreams, Annabeth realizes that Grover was caught chasing the Golden Fleece, the one thing that might fix Thalia’s tree. They manage to convince the campers to ask for a quest. But Tantalus sends Clarisse instead. Percy goes wandering that night, and meets Hermes, who gives him gifts in exchange for agreeing to help his son. Tyson and Annabeth join him, and they flee camp to help Grover. They find themselves on board a cruise ship filled with monsters that belongs to Luke. They escape but this begins a quest filled with monsters. Features include fight with Hydra, Scylla and Charybdis, Circe, and Sirens before arriving at Polyphemus’s island. At Polyphemus’s cave, Clarisse reveals that Grover is a satyr, not a female Cyclops. Polyphemus traps them in the cave and promises to marry Clarisse instead and to eat Grover. They trick Polyphemus, rescue Grove, Clarisse, and the Fleece, evade Luke, and make it back to camp. The Fleece heals the tree, but also expels the living Thalia.
Sea of Monsters and Social Class
From some comments Percy made in The Lightning Thief, we see his awareness of social class imbalances. And his disdain for wealthy kids who use their parents’ money as a way to escape consequences.
Meriwether Academy, his new school, is no escape from this. Meet Matt Sloan, the school bully
“Sloan wasn’t big or strong, but he acted like he was. He had eyes like a pit bull, and shaggy black hair, and he always dressed in expensive but sloppy clothes, like he wanted everybody to see how little he cared about his family’s money. One of his front teeth was chipped from the time he’d taken his daddy’s Porsche for a joyride and run into a PLEASE SLOW DOWN FOR CHILDREN sign.” (9)
The only thing I don’t buy in that description is that his parents would let that tooth stay chipped. It’s just a ‘simple’ 600-1000 dollar dental surgery, and his clothes are probably worth more than that anyway. Matt Sloan is the archetypal rich kid who avoids consequences, and Percy despises him and his lackeys. Given that some of those lackeys turn out to be the cannibal giants from earlier, I don’t think that’s a bad instinct.
But Sloan also serves as a foil for both Percy and Tyson. Percy because he comes from a lower-class working family, and Tyson because he’s homeless, scarred, and scared.
Matt gets away from the consequences of his actions with the Porsche, and with his Laistrygonian cannibal friends. He pins the blame on Percy instead. “Percy did it, Mr. Bonsai! He set the whole building on fire” (23-4). Of course, everyone believes him. What Riordan does with Sloan and Tyson is highlight the unfair privilege that social class gives you. How social class gives you protection and a voice.
Sea of Monsters, Tyson, and Homelessness
I can’t speak about the reality of homelessness and how well Riordan deals with it. However, I can speak to how people treat homeless people, and Riordan does that subject justice. One of the most common ways people treat homeless people is ignoring them until they want to feel good about themselves for doing something that doesn’t really help. The treatment of Tyson throughout the book.
The social workers don’t find him in the alley where he lives. Meriwether brings him in as a community service project, “so all the students could feel good about themselves” (9). They don’t defend him from bullying, they don’t provide him with housing and food. Pretty much the only thing they do is teach him, badly, and expect him to keep up with the other students with support bases.
Riordan does this very well in the beginning, but he walks it back a little at the end. Tyson’s homelessness reflects the reality of most Cyclops, admittedly a fictional species. At the end Tyson talks about his experience a little, and he says. “[The homelessness] makes us appreciate blessings, not be greedy and mean and fat like Polyphemus. But I got scared” (263). The homelessness then becomes a lesson to teach Tyson and his brothers, and framed as positive, instead of the tragedy it is.
The three sons of Poseidon, Tyson, Percy, and Polyphemus all act as foils on a spectrum of support systems. Tyson has no support system until he finds Percy, which is bad and this is framed as positive. Percy has a support system with Sally and with Poseidon, though he’s distant, and Riordan frames this as ideal, or closer to ideal. Polyphemus is spoiled, which Riordan frames as bad. And the only thing that makes Tyson different is his homeless upbringing.
Sea of Monsters and Race
In the second character we meet the first character of color that is not associated with death. Raj Mandali even existing, means that Riordan manages to immediately surpass the low, low bar set in The Lightning Thief.
Riordan also manages to flesh out the cast of characters at Camp Half-Blood as well. Meet Charles Beckendorf, leader of the Hephaestus cabin, and proudly African American. He’s an incredibly skilled blacksmith, and everyone in camp respects him. Beyond the fact that Riordan made some amends for not including any demigods that were people of color, he goes one or two steps further.
When everyone in camp makes fun of Tyson, the monster in their midst, and Percy by association, Beckendorf doesn’t. “The only person who had no problem with Tyson was Beckendorf from the Hephaestus cabin. The blacksmith god had always worked with Cyclopes in his forges, so Beckendorf took Tyson down to the armory to teach him metalworking” (69). There is no evidence in the text for this, but part of me thinks the other reason Beckendorf takes Tyson under his wing is empathy. Racial prejudice is and ugly and pervasive thing, and Beckendorf is very likely aware of that. So perhaps the reason he helps Tyson now is that he know what prejudice and discrimination feels like and does to people.
Beckendorf’s empathy also makes the textual parallels between people of color and Cyclopes clear. Which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Sea of Monsters and Prejudice
Percy and Annabeth’s arcs mirror each other in this book, and they both involve getting over their prejudice about Tyson. When Poseidon claims Tyson, Percy thinks that, “I had a monster for a half-brother” (65). His attitude doesn’t improve from there, though he manages to hide most of it from Tyson. It is only after Clarisse’s ship explodes, and Tyson seemingly dies that Percy realizes that he cares for and misses his half-brother. He spends the rest of the book grieving, until Tyson returns at Polyphemus’s island. Afterwards, he goes to apologize to Tyson for his previous thoughts, and gives credit for their chariot race victory to his building skills.
Annabeth’s story is more complicated. When she, Thalia, and Luke were on the run, heading to camp, they ran into a Cyclops in Brooklyn. It captured them, and slowed them down enough that the other monsters caught up to them and Thalia was turned into a pine tree. That traumatic meeting flavors her interaction with Tyson. She glares at him, insults him, and generally behaves in a bad way. Her mind also changes when Tyson vanishes, but it only changes about Tyson, not Cyclopes as a whole.
With Cyclopes as a whole, they seem to serve as an allegory for a discriminated class, with the prejudice of our white, cis, main characters being resolved at the end. But the fact that most Cyclopes are monsters makes this a problematic allegory. The idea that POC or LGBTQ+ or disabled people are monstrous leaves some very bad implications. But even though the allegory is bad, the arc of prejudice being resolved, and the acceptance Tyson gains at the end shows Riordan’s hopes, and he will eventually shed the allegory for a more blatant call to end discrimination and prejudice of all types.
Sea of Monsters, Grover, Clarisse, and Gender
This is the most interesting category of them all this time. Riordan introduces Grover and Clarisse as parallels due to their brief engagement to Polyphemus, Grover as a supposedly female Cyclops, and Clarisse as a masculine acting, ‘spunky’, demi-god. For most of the book they act in accordance to the ‘opposing’ gender roles. (Gender knowledge has evolved since 2005, but I use the word opposing here in scare quotes because it best reflects what Riordan intended with this parallel). The reasons behind that behavior show what Riordan’s message is here.
Clarisse acts in a hypermasculine way throughout the book. She blames Percy for interfering when he helps her defeat the Colchis bulls at the opening, fires on the hydra without caring if Annabeth, Percy, or Tyson get hurt, and generally behaves as an example of toxic masculinity. The reason behind her actions shows up on the ghostly ship. Ares, her father talks to her and threatens her to hit her if she doesn’t succeed. “ ‘You don’t want to see me mad, do you?’ ‘No, father’. ‘No, father’ Ares mimicked. ‘You’re pathetic. I should’ve let one of my sons take this quest.” (154). She is acting like Ares or one of his hypermasculine sons in an attempt to prove herself to her father.
Grover’s reasons for basically dressing in drag are to protect himself from Polyphemus. He mimics a traditionally feminine female Cyclops, wearing a dress and veil, and weaving like Penelope did. He does this to avoid Polyphemus killing and eating him, as women are taught to please the people around them.
Both Grover and Clarisse act with the ‘opposing’ gender roles both to deconstruct the reasons for them, and to highlight them by giving them to a person of the ‘opposite’ gender.
Sea of Monsters and Dyslexia
While ADHD isn’t mentioned specifically in the text this time around, Dyslexia rears it’s head several times. Firstly, the Gray Sisters take Tyson, Annabeth, and Percy to camp, and he sees, “GYAR SSIRES” (30) on their taxi. Then again, we see Dyslexia when Annabeth talks to Percy right before they go on the quest. She tries to argue against taking Tyson with them to Polyphemus’s lair and says. “Polyphemus is an S-i-k … a C-y-k…’ She stamped her foot in frustration. As smart as she was, Annabeth was dyslexic too. We could’ve been there all night while she tried to spell Cyclops” (108). It’s that ‘as smart as she was’ that I want to talk about here.
In The Lightning Thief, Riordan went to a great deal of effort to establish Percy as ADHD/Dyslexic. He didn’t put as much effort into establishing Annabeth as those things too. But now he says, clear as day, that Annabeth has Dyslexia, and we see it affect her, but not keep her from being intelligent. Annabeth’s intelligence saves the day more than once. She identifies the Hydra, outwits Circe, and creates the plan to stop Polyphemus. Annabeth does all that while still being dyslexic. Riordan draws the distinction between being academically perfect, which Annabeth isn’t, and being smart, which she is, perfectly.
In my review of The Lightning Thief I forgot environmentalism’s impact on the narrative. Grover goes on that quest so he can finally become a Seeker. Seekers look for the god Pan, who disappeared millennia ago, hoping to return him to power and fix the wilderness currently being destroyed by humans. No Seeker has ever returned from this quest, now we find out why no one ever comes back.
The Golden Fleece lures in satyrs, and then Polyphemus eats them. The Fleece gives out a nature aura that all the satyrs can sense, and it derails them from any traces of Pan they might actually find. It’s understandable, given the sheer effect of the Fleece on any given land.
“The place looked like a Caribbean postcard. It had green fields and tropical fruit trees and white beaches. … I couldn’t see the Fleece yet, but I could feel its power. … ‘If we take it away, will the island die?’ Annabeth shook her head. ‘It’ll fade. Go back to what it would be normally, whatever that is” (202).
The Fleece can make an area a perfect spot of wilderness, but only that spot, and only as long as the Fleece remains. I like this, because of what it means metaphorically for all the Seekers, and for the people who want to fix the environment. The Fleece is the easy answer. It’s easy to push for the things that will turn your area of the world into a green paradise, not the things best for everyone. So the satyrs go after it, even unintentionally, and it’s a metaphor for our own actions in regards to global warning. But now they’re free to look for the hard answer, to look for Pan, now we can start thinking on a global scale.
Overall, I like Sea of Monsters. Riordan manages to pull together a narrative that seamlessly blends the Polyphemus chapter of the Odyssey with the Golden Fleece myth. And even one book later, he’s already making improvements and stepping his representation off. It’s not perfect, and I don’t think I pretend that it does.
The situation with the Cyclops in particular, where the overcoming of prejudice with Tyson parallels overcoming real-world prejudices, but only with Tyson, leaving the other Cyclopes monsters, makes me uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable in pretty much the same way this post on The Rainbow Fish deconstructs what makes me uncomfortable about that book. Because while the message of the author was good, the metaphor they used undercuts or changes that message in a way that can be exceedingly negative.
But, we see Riordan making steps forward, and if he makes a step backward in these early days, I am willing to grin and bear it. We shouldn’t expect perfection. And I am very excited to talk about Thalia and responsibility in the next book.