This is my favorite thing Riordan has written in years. I think partially I liked it so much because I had such trouble with the first two books in this series, enough that I was almost 100% sure I would stop reading his books after this series was through. I think I’m going to reevaluate that decision based on how much I enjoyed reading The Burning Maze. We’ll see. But aside from liking it simply because it was better than the first two is not the only thing factoring in my enjoyment, I’m fairly certain.
The main issues I had with the first two books in this series were:
1) They felt insubstantial. Apollo did not feel like a god shoved into mortal form to me, and he wasn’t as funny as he thought he was. There was a sense of gravitas I was missing. The battles they fought felt inconsequential and shoehorned in, just to have a quest. The other characters that dropped in from Riordan’s other series felt lazy, like he was coasting off his previous work with them rather than using them properly in this one. But mostly, it felt like a wasted premise. Your main character has been alive for thousands of years and you spend your time with him making stupid jokes? Give me something real.
2) They felt tired and formulaic. The problem with formulaic writing (well, *a* problem) is that it doesn’t just make the reader tired and bored, it makes the writer tired and bored as well. Reading the first two books in this series, it felt to me like Riordan was tiring of his own shtick, like he’d milked that cow for all it was worth, but is committed for other various reasons ($$$) to keep wringing that empty udder for every last drop.
Almost none of those complaints were an issue for me in this book. For me, the quest to quench the burning maze felt poignant and significant. The final reveal of Caligula as the third emperor, and what that meant for our heroes up against him, felt significant. There was a palpable sense of loss and melancholy running throughout the book, as Apollo grappled with his waning godhood, and the losses of all the people he’s been getting to know since he’s been human. Sometimes things go away and you can’t get them back. That’s real, and Riordan laces that feeling throughout every part of this book. Where the other two books felt like they wanted to be funny and the plot was just in the way of that, here it felt like the focus was the story, and the humor was just an added bonus.
So yes, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. SPOILERS Riordan killed Jason, a previous main character in The Heroes of Olympus books. And before that, he actually had Piper break up with him. I do not for one instant think the book and Riordan didn’t earn this death. In fact, it or one like it has been a long time coming. Not because books are only important and good if people die in them. No, fuck that. Because you can’t keep writing stories about saving the world and braving the risks of quests, and keep having all of your heroes, all of the time, going up against these insane villains, and have them all survive, all of the time. People die all the time in real life. Heroes who risk their lives regularly against unnatural foes even more so. I’m not sure the death would have worked as well as it did, though, if the rest of the book (as mentioned above) hadn’t been meditating the whole time on the fragile, ephemeral nature of life END SPOILERS.
This book surprised the hell out of me. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but there’s something very refreshing about watching an author or artist whose creative fires had dimmed a little getting their groove back. I was always going to finish out this series no matter what, but I’ll be finishing it gladly now instead of kicking and screaming.