Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is a family favorite at my house. So when I heard he was writing the first book in Scholastic’s new The 39 Clues series, I pre-ordered it and looked forward to it with anticipation.
The series has a neat conceit: an aging family member with a fortune so vast that no one truly knows what the family owns dies and leaves a will. The surviving relatives, which makes up four different branches of the family, are challenged to find the true secret of the family in order to receive the bulk of the estate. Anyone not wanting to participate can immediately claim two million dollars to walk away. Those that decide to stay will receive nothing unless they win the contest.
Most of the survivors are tempted and accept the millions. However, our two young heroes – Amy and Dan Cahill – go against the wishes of their obnoxious and greedy aunt and decide to try to solve the puzzle. Amy is something of an information geek, and Dan has mutant powers when it comes to numbers. Both of these special “gifts” are played to the hilt during the book.
Amy and Dan are also orphans. Their parents died tragically and they were placed in the custody of their aunt. The aunt has always passed on the responsibility of their care and well-being (she doesn’t even live with them) in au pairs. Their latest au pair is a Goth girl named Nellie who isn’t much older than them but is old enough to drive. Common sense is still far in Nellie’s future.
The setup of the novel feels very familiar, kind of a cross of Survivor, The Amazing Race, and a fistful of History Channel specials all thrown together. There is nothing truly original about the idea or Riordan’s handling of the characters or material. I can see what attracted him to the book (and to the job of outlining all 10 novels in the series), but I still felt like something was missing from the overall book. I love his Percy Jackson stuff, and I enjoyed the Tres Nevarre mystery series he did before that.
The first book focuses on Benjamin Franklin. Quite honestly, that disappointed me. Franklin, although important and possessed of an amazing life, is one I think even most grade school kids will be too acquainted with to be overly interested in. I would have preferred someone less used to the limelight.
Riordan makes good use of the material, and his characters are endearing as always, but there isn't much in the way of surprises. The maze of bones referred to in the title will probably seize the imaginations of the young readers for a time, but more likely it will be the competition between the family groups that will prove to be the biggest draw.
However, I have to wonder if there will be enough change in the characters to warrant a ten-book run. Gordon Korman is the next author up in rotation, and it’ll be interesting to see if his take on the characters and situations will match up to Riordan’s introduction.
For the moment, I’m curious enough to keep picking up the series, and I believe most of the younger readers will be too. Still, spreading the books out over the next three years seems ambitious. The kids are going to grow up and some of them will move on.
The collectible card game and online support will keep some of the kids interested, especially since a $10,000 reward is going to be given for the winner of the contest. This book/series is definitely worth a look, but I can hardly wait for Riordan’s next – and possibly final – Percy Jackson book next year.