Truth be told, the main reason I read The Heroes of Olympus and The Trials of Apollo was so that I could finish The Magnus Chase series. I had read the 2nd book in The Magnus Chase series and it contained a slight spoiler for The Heroes of Olympus. I was a bit annoyed by that so I decided to read those series first before finishing this one. Looking back on it, it was more my own error as The Heroes of Olympus takes place before Magnus Chase while The Trials of Apollo is happening alongside this series. That being said, I don’t regret reading the other two series as they were great however they did leave me feeling a but lukewarm about Magnus and his trilogy.
To say that Magnus grew as a person from start to finish wouldn’t exactly be accurate. Honestly it might be a problem with the whole Magnus Chase series. There’s hardly a noticeable change in Magnus as there was in Percy, Jason or any of the other of Riordan’s heroes. He starts off as a noble, somewhat heroic, caring and awkward hero and ends in almost the identical manner. It almost makes it feel like his journey didn’t really impact him in a way one would expect from a save-the-world adventure.
But where Magnus didn’t change, the side characters certainly did. Samirah is going through the Nordic adventure while fasting for Ramadan which is constantly mentioned throughout the story. It makes her actions rather more impressive as she still fights heroically side by side with her allies. There’s also several references to Samirah’s faith and how she feels regarding the whole Norse pantheon within the confines of our modern world and her Islamic faith. It helps to ground the story further and make her feel like a real person. Riordan even takes time to flesh out the rest of floor 19’s cast. Halfborn Gunderson, Mallory Kee, and Thomas Jefferson Jr. all get moments to really expand on their history and flesh out their characters. What I think is also my favorite character arc in all of Riordan’s series might be Hearthstone’s. I don’t think any character comes close to the complex emotions and strength of this elf and it’s hard not to appreciate it.
There’s a discerning lack of stakes in The Ship of the Dead that feels a bit lacking when compared to the previous novels. Even though it’s Ragnarok, the potential end of the world, there’s a lacking in how meaningful it is. Red gives a really good explanation in Trope Talk: Save the World of how the “save-the-world” plot can present a difficult challenge for writers. It’s something that Riordan poked at in the other series but those often involve a new world order rather than an end of the world scenario. But in those stories there’s also more of an established connection between the central protagonist and the big bad antagonist(s) or conflict. If Sam or Alex were the main protagonist, it could potentially be more impactful as their directly confronting a parent they have a torturous relationship with. With Magnus, it feels more like an obligation than a character driven story which is weird to say considering how in books 1 & 2 he felt more invested in the main conflict. Ultimately it ended up leading to a climax that felt very anti-climactic.
That being said, with this being a Riordan adventure, there’s several detours along the way and these are where the book really shines. We get to see character driven decision making from the cast of heroes and it all focuses on their strengths and weaknesses. They work as a team rather than relying on a powerhouse like Percy or Jason. These side quests essentially allow for those moments of character development for the side characters while still relating to the main quest. Hearthstone is definitely the best, I love his arc. It’s something that feels far more weighted, emotional and still relatable to a lot of us as we grow up.
The worldbuilding continues in a familiar manner we’d expect from Riordan at this point. While it’s enjoyable and well done within the confines of Riordan’s universe, it is getting a tad bit formulaic in a sense. The best way to really convey this is examining the difference between the Norse Pantheon in this series versus the Greek/Roman pantheon previously explored. The difference being that they generally don’t feel very different. Maybe this is intentional on Riordan’s part to show that the pantheons and faiths aren’t that different and there’s a familiarity everywhere if you look closely. However it feels like it doesn’t separate itself enough from the other series considering a brand new pantheon and world within the universe was introduced.
Part of the reason that the main conflict feels so lacking is how it’s portrayed. It’s really strange, but I felt far more emotion in Hearthstone’s moment in the story than I did at the climax of The Ship of the Dead. This may be because the way Hearthstone’s story is written feels far more emotional and difficult for the characters involved. It’s so carefully written that I was hooked for that whole segment of the book and couldn’t stop. It’s strange then that, at the climax of the book, I didn’t really feel that invested in the moment. The way it was written, the speed at which the moment passed, it all served to make the moment feel anti-climactic.
What Writers can Learn from this Book
One of the key issues with The Ship of the Dead that isn’t really an issue in the previous books is what feels like a lack of connection between the protagonist and the main conflict. Magnus’ story feels more like a plot driven quest of obligation than it does a personal character driven adventure. What makes it even more apparent is how the rest of the crew feels more connected to the goal of stopping Loki than Magnus does. Samirah and Alex being directly related and having suffered from Loki’s tricks especially feels more connected than Magnus even though Magnus’ mother died due to Loki’s scheming.