In "The Red Pyramid," the first book in "The Kane Chronicles," Rick Riordan's new series for middle readers, a child has godlike powers but doesn't know it until strange things begin to unfold. A parent disappears, prompting introductions to ancient characters and travels to otherworldly places. There are battles with evil forces and a looming deadline by which the child must complete a mission, lest society descend into chaos.
If this sounds like "Percy Jackson & the Olympians," the author's five-book, New York Times bestseller fantasy series — and source of the film "The Lightning Thief" — that's no coincidence. Why mess with a successful formula, especially if you can use it to make your new story just as fast-paced and intriguing as its predecessor?
With "The Red Pyramid," Riordan has done just that. Here there are two protagonists instead of one — siblings Sadie and Carter Kane — and their powers hail from gods who are Egyptian rather than Greek. Their mission: to find their archaeologist father, who accidentally blew up the British Museum and, as a result, was absorbed through the museum's floor.
On Christmas Eve, no less.
Once again, Riordan masterfully meshes modern life with mythology and history, reinvigorating dusty artifacts such as the Rosetta stone and revitalizing ancient Egyptian story lines.
As Sadie and Carter teleport from London and Cairo to Paris and Phoenix and shape-shift into various animals, they come to understand they aren't ordinary kids. They're magicians, even if attempts to summon swords sometimes result in butter knives.
More significant, they're descendants of pharaohs, and their earthly bodies are temporarily inhabited by Egyptian gods.
Such preposterously delightful circumstances are enhanced by Riordan's ear for dialogue, which has 12-year-old Sadie and 14-year-old Carter delivering such gems as, "Why are 5,000-year-old monsters attacking our house?" and "Excuse me, Miss Goddess Lady," as they unwittingly play out narratives that have been predestined for millennia.
Sadie, it turns out, is Isis; the goddess of fertility, who is on a quest to locate the god of the lower world, Osiris. Carter is Horus, the son of Osiris, who has to defeat Set, the god who is imprisoning his dad.
For their journey, they use the tools of ancient Egypt, including clay figurines that come to life and guide them, and papyrus scrolls that reveal information that will help them on their quest.
Sadie has no trouble interpreting hieroglyphs, another similarity between her and Percy Jackson, who didn't understand why he could read ancient Greek until he learned he was a demigod. Like Percy — which derives from Perseus — Carter's name is also symbolic. It comes from Howard Carter, who discovered King Tut's tomb.
The similarities between "Percy Jackson & the Olympians" and "The Red Pyramid" are numerous, but if "The Red Pyramid" comes off as derivative, at least Riordan is deriving from himself.
Regardless, his new story, like his old one, is inventive and well told and has the added benefit of making history interesting again. How interesting? "The Red Pyramid" may not be available until Tuesday, but as of Friday it was No. 13 on Amazon.com.
As for how many books will follow this first installment of "The Kane Chronicles," Riordan told Publishers Weekly last November that he was planning a three-book series, although he acknowledged, "I may end up going farther than that."
As for Sadie and Carter, they seem likely to encounter some other deities along the way.
"The Red Pyramid," after all, is structured as a transcript of a digital recording by its two protagonists — a transcript that is left in a school locker in the hopes that other godlings will step forward and further the gods' story line.