Word Play: Old myths and teen heroes

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Consider this premise for a novel:

Helen Hamilton has always known there is something odd about her. It’s not just her superhuman strength, which she has learned to mask, or her tendency to provoke strange attackers. Lately she’s worried that she’s losing her mind — and the news that she is no ordinary human but a hero of Greek legend raises as many questions as it answers.

Does this remind you of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”?

Now consider this description:

A mysterious and glamorous family that hangs together clannishly takes an interest in a shy, awkward local girl. She is irresistibly drawn to one of the gorgeous sons, but he seems to be, confusingly, both attracted and repelled by her. She learns that there are supernatural forces and ancient traditions that make their union impossible, but their love is too powerful to resist.

Does this remind you of “Twilight”?

Although Josephine Angelini’s new novel, “Starcrossed” (HarperTeen: $17.99, ages 12 and up), will remind readers of both Rick Riordan’s and Stephenie Meyer’s popular series, Angelini quickly establishes her own territory. The world of the Greek gods is alive and well on Angelini’s Nantucket Island, and the secretive Delos clan definitely has Cullen-like powers. But Angelini is an original, and she’s confident enough even to drop a few sly vampire jokes early on.


Homer’s “Iliad” is the basis of her story, and she convincingly translates the drama of the ancient world into high school society and smalltown life. Helen has been flying under the radar for years, plagued by her odd talents as well as her obsessive need to hide — a difficult trick for a girl who is both Amazon-big and Helen-of-Troy beautiful.

When she meets the children of the new family on the island, she feels a hatred so strong, she’s driven to physically attack Lucas Delos. It turns out there is a blood rivalry that goes back thousands of years and has set in conflict five houses descended from the heroes of the Trojan War. Angelini cleverly sets up the rules of her supernatural world to engage all the fascinating contradictory elements of the world of the Greek gods as we read them in Homer’s epics. In the end, the question that will carry the series through its intended three books is this: Will Helen and Luke, as lovers, manage to avoid what seems to be their fate as enemies? And isn’t it hubris for them to think they are special enough to defy fate?

Helen always returns in her mind to the story of Oedipus: You meet your fate on the road you were taking to avoid it. Hers is a road I’m eager to travel; the second book in this series, “Dreamless,” is slated for May 2012 — not soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. I haven’t wanted a second book so much since “The Hunger Games.”

America seems to be a good place for Greek gods these days. Chiron, the centaur who taught Hercules and countless demigod heroes of legend, explains the migration of the Greek pantheon like this in the first Percy Jackson book: “The gods simply moved.… Like it or not — and believe me, plenty of people weren’t very fond of Rome, either — America is now the heart of the flame.”

Whereas Riordan located the entrance to Hades’ Underworld beneath a recording studio in Los Angeles, Meg Cabot locates it under a cemetery in the Florida Keys. Based on the myth of Persephone, “Abandon” (Scholastic/Point: $17.99 ages 14 and up) asks the question: What if Death and his mistress were American teenagers? The push-pull of attraction and resistance being a key element in the discovery of sexuality, there is a fantastic romantic premise in the story of a girl who is kidnapped by the Lord of the Underworld but refuses to be his consort.

As Cabot’s heroine puts it: “What did any of it mean? Where could it go? He was a death deity. I was a senior in high school. This was never going to work.”

Pierce has had a near-death experience, and when she examines her memories of the accident, she realizes that her relationship with the man she met in the underworld goes back into her childhood. She knows him — in fact, he’s been following her around and intruding on her life in patterns she never connected until recently. But is he protecting her or stalking her?

Cabot’s rules for the supernatural world are a bit messier than Angelini’s — and a sureness about the rules is a key element to enjoying supernatural stories, even when it’s clear that certain hidden threads in the fabric are being held back for later surprises. Cabot seems to change course halfway through the book and make John Hayden, her mysterious silver-eyed hottie, a generic “death deity” rather than Hades himself — so readers feel in less sure hands, despite Cabot’s long publishing history (she is the author of “The Princess Diaries” as well many supernatural stories).

Picture books (totally unrelated to Greek myth)

Three By The Sea

Mini Grey

Knopf Books for Young Readers: $17.99, ages 4-8

Who knows where trouble comes from? This charming tale of the strife that creeps into a friendship offers readers of all ages something to think about. The youngest readers will enjoy the story of three friends living peacefully by the seaside — Dog tends the garden, Cat keeps house, and Mouse does the cooking — until a sneaky Stranger (a fox, of course!) pays a visit.

Slightly more sophisticated readers will notice how cleverly the fox sows dissatisfaction with his seemingly innocent remarks.… Readers who have experience with how difficult even the best relationships can be will admire how Mini Grey hits this tricky nail on the head. Her illustrations contain as much subtlety as her text. Uncannily like marriage (how else do you parse the division of household chores among Dog, Cat and Mouse?), the arrangement contains the seeds of its own misery (“They lived happily. Or so they thought…”) but needs a precipitating factor from the outside to lose its balance. A brilliant detail is that the traveling Fox is a salesman for the Winds of Change Trading Company. What has drawn him there? Why does he tap so easily into everyone’s dissatisfaction? What catastrophe will bring the three to their senses? And when peace is restored, all readers will notice that, while Fox is gone, the Winds of Change have left their mark.

Bolle writes the column Word Play, which appears monthly at