‘The Tower of Nero:’ saying goodbye to an old friend

October 16, 2020

“The Tower of Nero,” written by Rick Riordan, is the grand finale to 15 years of storytelling told across fifteen full-length novels and three distinct series. That total goes up exponentially if Riordan’s novellas and other mythology series are taken into account. As such, I started reading this book hoping for two things: that it would bring those 15 years of story to a satisfying close and that it would be a genuinely compelling story on its own terms. I’m glad to say that all of my expectations were blown.

The book picks up with Apollo, still trapped in the form of a hapless mortal named Lester, and Meg, a demigod daughter of Demeter, attempting to get back into New York City. Having defeated two of the three immortal Roman Emperors who sought to control the world in the last book, “The Tyrant’s Tomb,” the duo now has to defeat the third and most powerful emperor, Nero, who also happens to be Meg’s abusive step-father. Meanwhile, Apollo is forced to question what his end goal of regaining his immortality actually means: will he forget all of the lessons he learned as a mortal? Of course, as often happens to Rick Riordan’s characters, Apollo and Meg’s plan is quickly thrown off course, setting the stage for a final adventure that simultaneously introduces more concepts to an already packed mythological world, and provides a touching send-off to everything about this world that Riordan’s fans already love.

The “Trials of Apollo” series has given many Camp Half Blood characters a chance to shine that were sidelined during Percy’s stories. Apollo’s son, Will Solace, returns along with his boyfriend Nico di Angelo, the son of Hades. While Will was only a background character for most of the first ten “Half Blood Chronicles,” he is given a chance to truly shine here (please excuse the pun). Meanwhile, the Nico seen here is definitely a far cry from the geeky ten-year-old introduced in “The Titan’s Curse.” Now he is older, struggling with PTSD and proudly out of the closet. Rachel Elizabeth Dare, the current Oracle of Delphi, also returns and is once more given a chance to show off her hairbrush-related combat skills.

Meg and Apollo have both undergone some serious growth over the last five books. At the start of this series, Meg was rude, abrasive and closed-off. Riordan uses Apollo’s narration to comment multiple times that Meg’s entire journey has been about learning how to face her abuser. While this topic can be triggering for many readers, especially young ones, I think Riordan handles it very carefully and in a way that younger readers will be able to understand. Meg starts this series adrift, and without any spoilers, ends it having returned to her roots with a new family.

Apollo is still clearly traumatized by Jason Grace’s death in “The Burning Maze.” Although moving on from Jason’s death is Apollo’s main character arc in “The Tyrant’s Tomb,” “The Tower of Nero” shows that mourning isn’t a one-and-done process. The former god is determined to keep his promise to Jason, to remember what it’s like to be human, although he is concerned about his ability to keep that promise. Apollo has significantly matured over the course of this series, going from a narcissistic, petulant child to someone who spends most of this book prioritizing others’ needs over his own. This shift ends up driving Apollo’s final confrontation with Nero, as Apollo is forced to prolong it in order to save the lives of his friends. Apollo’s character arc reaches a satisfying conclusion, although I won’t say too much about his final status.

As much as I enjoyed reading this book, no piece of writing is perfect. Apollo’s, and perhaps Mr. Riordan’s, inability to let go of Jason seems contradictory. While I love the use of older characters in this novel, Jason’s continued presence strikes me as fan-service. Also confusing is the difference between this novel’s two antagonists. Despite lurking in the shadows as an abstract threat for the last four books, Python never seems as intimidating to me as Nero is. Nero’s presence is electrifying, both in what he means for the characters, and how Riordan describes him. It is hard not to think of politics when Apollo takes note of Nero’s ability to “twist the truth with such brazenness … and still sound like they [believe] what they are saying,” in the book. Meanwhile,  Python’s threat is too abstract, especially when compared to Nero’s very human menace.

Despite these minor quibbles, “The Tower of Nero” is an amazing book. Rick Riordan has seemingly brought his massive shared universe, one that predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe by three years, to a satisfying conclusion. This book ends with a farewell tour, checking in on almost all of the major characters from not only this series, but the last two too. I’d be lying if I said that reading Percy’s dialogue for potentially the last time didn’t bring tears to my eyes. But Riordan, or “Uncle Rick” as the fanbase passionately calls him, doesn’t totally close the door on future stories in this world. By my count, at least two potential series are set up in this book, including various hints at the Mythological Avengers series I’ve been predicting since “The Kane Chronicles” were released. Even though we might not see them for a while, Percy, Annabeth and all of our favorite half bloods are still having adventures. 

Riordan ends this book with a promise. Fresh out of unicorns, Apollo, again acting as Riordan’s mouth-piece, offers the reader his friendship. After fifteen years of stories and adventures, several trips through hell, two movie adaptations we don’t talk about, a musical and an on-the-way Disney+ TV series, what more can we really ask for?

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