In Book 2 of the “Kane Chronicles,” the Texas-based author of the “Tres Navarre” mysteries cleverly uses hilarious, romantic, magical, and thrill-packed entertainment to educate young adults about ancient Egyptian mythology. He’s very sneaky that way. But we’re not surprised, since he did the same thing with Greek mythology in the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series. Ditto Roman mythology in the “Heroes of Olympus” series. Face it, you’re going to need a roadmap to keep track of all the different ways Rick Riordan has brought the legends of ancient gods and heroes into the present day. But in spite of the globe-trotting complexity of the action in this book, and the relative unfamiliarity of the gods, monsters, and mythological concepts it introduces, this is a deceptively easy book to enjoy.
The charm of the brother and sister narrators, taking turns dictating their story into a voice recorder, is one reason for this. Another is Riordan’s knack for skewering bits of weird, ancient Egyptian trivia with brightly colored, memory-grabbing gimmicks, such as dubbing one antlered god “Bullwinkle,” or describing a psychedelic griffin as a seven-thousand-pound hummingbird. You may giggle, perhaps blasphemously, at a hairy dwarf god who puts on his “ugly suit” (i.e., a speedo), pulls a demon-scaring face, and yells “BOO!” But you won’t forget him soon.
Teenage magicians Sadie and Carter Kane extend the same genius as far as dubbing a villain “the ice cream man,” speculating about Ptah being the god of spit, and describing the god of the underworld as having skin the color of a blueberry. But all their wise-cracking and sibling raillery is needed to lighten what would otherwise be a very dark adventure. For, don’t you know, the world is going to end in four days unless they do something about it. Something big. Something “awaken-Ra-the-pharaoh-of-the-gods-from-a-three-thousand-year-slumber” big. Only Ra was ever strong enough to balance the powers of chaos, represented by the serpent-god Apophis, with ma’at, or good order. But even if they find him, and the three pieces of the scroll that contains the spell to wake him up, it may not be enough. Ra, after all, is old—old even by the standards of the gods—and for all anyone knows, completely senile. So it’s not enough that the Kanes face an all but impossible task; they must do it while also resisting the temptation to seize power for themselves, to become at one with the lesser gods Horus and Isis, and to try their own divinely amplified strength against Apophis.
Of course, that would be spectacularly bad. But their task doesn’t become any easier when winning puts people they care about in danger, when many of their fellow magicians are out to kill them, when their home base in Brooklyn is under attack by demons, and when their journey through the twelve houses of the underworld is plagued with misfortune, sabotage, and a deadly game with one of Egypt’s least attractive gods. (And I don’t mean the one who says “Boo!”) A tomb full of mummies and ghosts, a wrestling match with river demons, a train-station-wrecking battle with a vulture goddess and an over-shampooed baboon, and several out-of-body experiences are only a few of the side trips that make their quest more interesting. From chilly St. Petersburg to sweltering Cairo, with stops in New York, London, and a nursing home for retired gods, the Kanes get the full tour of the classic quest myth while time runs out for life as we know it.
Whatever happens, the world will be different when Carter and Sadie are through with it. But their adventures are far from over. The “Kane Chronicles” continue with a third book, 2012’s The Serpent’s Shadow. Plus, both this book and its predecessor The Red Pyramid have been published as graphic novels; and a crossover series combining the Kanes with Percy Jackson is now up to two books: The Son of Sobek and The Staff of Serapis. There is even a Kane Chronicles Survival Guide, for what it’s worth. As for me, I would stick to the stories. This one is lots of fun. By now, I would expect no less of any novel by Rick Riordan.