The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan is the third book in the Trials of Apollo series, and the action is too hot to handle — even for a former sun god!
Apollo has already been through two major trials by the time we meet him again in The Burning Maze. At the beginning of this tale, Lester Papadopoulos warns us that, “In these pages, only suffering awaits.”
He’s not wrong.
As is typical of Rick Riordan’s books, we’re dumped right in the middle of a predicament that’s as harrowing as it is hilarious. Apollo, Meg, and Grover have been traveling through the Labyrinth for days trying to find a way across the country in record time. There is as much banter and exhaustion as there are monsters to be found, and it’s not long before they try to fend off dangerous foes with nothing more than their wits and Meg’s arsenal of plant seeds.
You know, as you do.
The rest of Apollo’s misadventures follow much of the same pattern as he and his companions try to work out the true meaning of the Dark Prophecy and rescue the next Oracle from the clutches of a trio of evil Roman emperors. All in a day’s work, really.
Where I found The Dark Prophecy to be a bit slow to get to the final conflict, The Burning Maze ignites a fire under our heroes. Not only do they have to work through the prophecy by the time limit provided, but there are others whose lives hang in the balance. Apollo isn’t just responsible for himself anymore; he must be willing to momentarily set aside his own personal quest to restore his godhood in order to protect his newfound friends.
This is, obviously, quite a foreign concept. Altruism? Selflessness? Sacrifice? These are words the god Apollo knows well but has never applied to himself. However, over the course of two books, the now mortal Lester has learned a great deal about the strength that humans possess, and The Burning Maze continues to open his eyes to the mortal way of life.
Percy Jackson will, of course, always be my favorite Greek hero, but there’s something to be said for the journey Apollo has undertaken. When we first meet him in The Hidden Oracle, he is very much his formal self trapped in a mortal body. He’s arrogant, selfish, annoying, proud, and downright unbearable. Not everything has changed three books later (where would the fun be in that?), but he’s certainly come far enough to begin feeling true human emotions.
It’s Apollo’s connections with the people around him that becomes the emotional centerpiece of this book. Meg, for example, is not an easy person to get along with, and their relationship has been rocky in the past. But her connection to Nero is as much a strength as it is a weakness, and Apollo does his best to understand what she’s gone through. There’s something to be said about Apollo’s choice to empathize with her predicament rather than find an easy solution to her problems.
But Meg isn’t the only one Apollo begins to become attached to. As an Olympian, Apollo was always removed from the heroes who lived so far below them. Their mortal lives were simply a blip on his radar. Their epic adventures and agonizing battles were mere distractions he used to pass the time amid the span of his immortal life.
But now that he has lived among them, now that he has gotten to know then, he can longer see them objectively. They are no longer distractions; now they are allies, companions, friends.
Apollo is faced with plenty of hard choices in The Burning Maze. This book is, as with all of Rick Riordan’s other books, filled with gut-busting laughs that appeal to both children and adults. But it’s also full of the harsh realities of life. I loved the setting, the action, the humor, and the cameos as much as I always do, but what will stick with me for a long time to come is the emotional journey this book took me on.
Commodus is a powerful but somewhat silly villain. Nero is cunning and manipulative, but his attachment to Meg, despite being disgusting and abusive, gives him an air of humanity. The final emperor, and our Burning Maze villain, is more terrifying than the other two put together. He is the one that reminds us, albeit unintentionally, how imperative it is that Apollo succeed in his quest.
What I love about Rick Riordan’s books is the nearly perfect balance that is achieved through humor and heartbreak, and The Burning Maze has both in spades. These gods, demigods, and monsters can be downright ridiculous (the blemmyae are a testament to that), but the consequences of not taking their power seriously can be fatal.
Apollo faces many trials in The Burning Maze and does not come out unscathed. This book is a memento of just how far Apollo has come — and how much further he still needs to go.
So don’t expect to walk away from it without shedding a tear or two.