After the last of the Norse mythology books, I honestly thought Riordan was losing his touch. I don’t know that much about Norse mythology so I had been excited to use the series to learn more, but in the end, the series, and especially the last book, felt very rushed to me. However, I was already two books into The Trials of Apollo series, and since I am nothing if not a completionist, I didn’t let that disappointment deter me from reading this one. Overall, I actually liked this one. Maybe Riordan just prefers the world of Greek and Roman mythology or feels more comfortable with these characters, some of whom have been around since the first Percy Jackson novel. Piper and Jason end up pulled into the quest in this novel, and I liked how Riordan handled certain aspects of teen romance/relationships.
The novel begins midst action as Apollo is still on his quest to free the Oracles from the evil triumvirate of former Roman emperors. After another attack on the way to their next destination, Meg, Apollo and Grover have made it to Palm Springs, which has become a base for the dryads and beings fighting against the wildfires of Southern California. While climate change, draughts and humans have done a number on nature and helped lead to the destruction of much of it (and the deaths of dryads and other nature related supernatural creatures), the intensity of the wildfires goes beyond that, and has a magical source. Someone is using the maze as a prison for the Sybil Oracle, and is using an extreme source of heat and fire to keep her in, leading to the extreme wildfires. Grover and the dryads have spent the past year unsuccessfully trying to find and defeat the source with only losses to show as the result.
The previous novels revealed the identities of two of the three emperors (Nero and Commodus), and in this one, Apollo and the heroes must face the third. Someone with even a passing knowledge of Roman history would have probably already made an educated guess about the last one’s identity, and it turns out that Riordan went with the obvious choice. (I have a passing knowledge so I easily guessed two of the three and knew who the third one was when Riordan identified him. Someone with a more in depth knowledge of Roman history may have been able to come up with a more evil but more obscure candidate but the whole point is that the villains’ power comes from the fact that they are remembered.)
The premise of this series is that Zeus is punishing Apollo for his actions and decisions and Apollo has to redeem himself by going on a quest as a human. While the other novels have shown Apollo slowly facing the consequences of millennia of thoughtless behavior, this novel is the most poignant and emotional. Before, Apollo was facing enemies that hated him because of things he had uncaringly done, and he had realized how wrong his past actions were. In this novel, he sees his current choices affecting friends and allies. It is no longer his past coming to haunt him; instead he sees first hand, as it is happening, how he affects other people. One message he receives in this is to remember what is like to be human, how it feels to be seen as a tool of gods for their dirty work and treated as a simple pawn, and to be better when/if he becomes a god again. This is the third time Zeus has punished Apollo with humanity but maybe the quest and the relationships he builds this time around will finally make that lesson stick – if he survives his trials and quest.
I was also pleasantly surprised when I realized this wasn’t the last novel of the series. Riordan could have easily made this a trilogy in a one emperor per book kind of deal, but instead it looks like it will be one Oracle per novel. After the last Magnus novel, I appreciated that this series won’t feel rushed, and is exploring its subject (Apollo) thoroughly. I think that was why I was disappointed with the Norse ones, it seemed like it was only touching the surface of legends to explore. Basically, if you like Riordan and have been feeling a bit disappointed with any recent novels, this one is worth the read and mostly what one expects from him – it’s not at the same level as Percy Jackson but is a solid read. He seemed to tone down on some of the more ridiculous jokes, but the balance between levity and seriousness worked very well for me in this one.