Books Reviewed: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
Working at the library, I often find myself having conversations with teens and preteens about what they're reading. As a fan of young adult fiction who rarely has time to actually read much of the genre, I'm interested in hearing about what the kids are reading these days. And lately, they are all finishing The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
Until the final book of the series, Mockingjay, came out in August, I had never heard of Hunger Games. But once that book arrived on the shelves, it was all I heard about it. Every critic was reading and praising the series, and every teenager in our library seemed to have at least one of the books on hold. A co-worker of mine, who has a few teens of her own, read the series and said she enjoyed them. So I agreed to try them out.
It was soooo worth it! Because the three Hunger Games books are pretty awesome. Once I started the first book, I couldn't stop until I had all three devoured in a week's time. I tried to resist the book at first since the writing style itself isn't anything to write home about and I'd had previous bad experiences with this kind of sci-fi-ish tough girl act before. But by page 50, I'd become completely sucked into Collins's fictional world. The trilogy's plot had me gripped firmly in its clutches in a way that very few books do. In fact, it's kind of hard to review these books in a traditional way, so I'm trying a longer form review broken into parts here. I hope you can follow along.
What It's About: In The Hunger Games, we meet our narrator Katniss Everdeen in a dystopian future country called Panem. Panem is made up of the Capitol, which controls the country's power and has all the money and comfort, and twelve districts, the worst of which is Katniss's home, District 12. Katniss and her best friend/possible love interest Gale are waiting for an event called the reaping, where two teenagers are picked from each district to fight in the annual Hunger Games, an event where only one of 24 contestants can survive. In other words, this country celebrates the defeat of a rebel uprising by forcing young people to kill each other in brutal marathons of death and deprivation. Katniss, along with a better-off young man named Peeta, end up being shipped off to the Games, both of them sure they won't make it home. They both play the media and the Gamemakers in order to better their chances in the arena. This entire first book takes place in the context of this Hunger Games competition and the beginning of friendship/romance for Katniss and Peeta.
The next book shakes things up considerably more. In Catching Fire, Katniss accidentally becomes a token of an emerging resistance among the districts. She's punished for her actions by being forced (along with Peeta) to participate in another version of The Hunger Games, this time more brutal and terrifying than before. Meanwhile, a full-scale revolution grips all of Panem and forces the Capitol to take retaliatory measures. Every character is now fighting for his or her life. The book has quite a surprising end (that I won't ruin for you), and sets up our finale.
Mockingjay is the last book, and it's by far the most bleak. By this point, Katniss is little more than a pawn among the powerplayers of the rebellion. Needless to say, shit goes down and Katniss is stuck in the middle with less power than she originally realized. Also, she deals with the fallout of the love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale. The ending is far from happy, but it's satisfying in the context of both the story and the current media/war-saturated world in which we readers live.
Why This Series Is Awesome: As I mentioned earlier, the writing isn't particularly special, especially since it's in first person and the vocabulary is downgraded for the target audience. Also, I could do without the love triangle, although it did have its moments. However, the books' powers lay in its intelligence of creating a future world that feels uncomfortably near to our own. The way Collins handles the idea of the media is particularly admirable. The savvy of how media affects the outcome of events and masks the true story of any given situation really impressed me. It's rare to find a complex subject like the media handled so well in a novel intended for people who don't even have their driver's licenses.
I think it would be hard to read these book and not find at least one character you really like. I actually was quite fond of Katniss (which is rare, since I rarely like narrating protagonists), and I thought Haymitch, District 12's mentor at the Hunger Games, was a particularly interesting creation. Apparently, there are people who get quite into the underwritten love triangle and pick sides. Frankly, I don't know how anyone can be on Team Gale. He only becomes fully-realized as a character in the third book, and by that point he's shown some pretty weak traits. Peeta, who I'd argue is written to be a little too perfect in the first two books, becomes much more complex in the third. I tried to resist liking him, but it didn't work. Part of this is surely due to his resemblance - both in physical description and personality - to my beloved, honorable Rudy Steiner in The Book Thief . Collins takes her character to some extremely dark places by the end of the series, and I'm surprised she broke them so much. That takes a lot of guts, but it totally paid off in the end.
Finally, these books are awesome because they completely suck you into their powers. Collins writes action better than any writer I've read in a long time, and the plot is intricate enough to be satisfying without causing confusion. In the first book, I had to know what Peeta was up to, how Katniss was going to survive. In the second, I questioned everything that was happening in Panem. And by the third, I couldn't believe the things I was reading. Like I mentioned earlier, these books get pretty bleak in the end. The last paragraph and final sentence of Mockingjay border on the hopeful. After all, this is a series about being human and choosing humanity over violence. But it's not happy, and it doesn't wrap up in a nice bow like most young adult series. Harry Potter this is not.
Why This Trilogy Really Is For Teens: Finally, I'd like to address some of the criticism that has been thrown at the series by more conservative readers. Mainly, many consider these books to be too violent for teenagers and middle-schoolers. I understand where these people are coming from, too. These books can be brutal in their unflinching view of perpetual violence and its effects on the human psyche. But I also think it's strange that people are condemning a book that makes an argument for the end of violence against fellow human beings. I wouldn't be surprised to see this series on some Top Banned Books lists in the next decade, and that scares me. These books have some important things to say, and in a world where the media dictates so much of what we consume in both the real world and the book world, those things shouldn't be ignored by our future thinkers. A lot of teenagers I've talked to are reading these books for the romance angle, but they are coming away with a lot more food for thought. Censors shouldn't take that away.
While I was reading the Hunger Games books, a lot of people asked me how I liked them. My answer was simple: "The fourteen year old in me loves them." I often joke that I have two reading personas: the mature literary critic and the rabid teenage fangirl. This book appealed to the latter, but the former appreciated it too. The three main characters in this book - Katniss, Peeta, and Gale - really brought back the memories of how painful it is to be a teenager. I'm not talking about the romance situation or the awkwardness. I'm talking about the desire to have power at a time when it's impossible to have it. When I was in high school, I had quite a rebellious edge to my beliefs and opinions. I walked around in my Led Zeppelin t-shirt and orange Converse sneakers and called myself a socialist. I became a pacifist and aligned myself as a solid liberal. More than anything, I wanted to make a difference in the world, even a small one. I wanted to change the way the government was run, the way people thought, the way wars were fought. But during these most ambitious years of my life, I also had no real power to do those things. I couldn't even vote. That's why these books work perfectly for teenagers. Katniss's situation as a wannabe rebel who ends up being little more than a pawn really stuck with my inner teenager. It's a hard place to be, and this series gets at the heartache of that disillusionment in a way that rarely gets played to such high stakes in literature. I enjoyed that aspect maybe more than any other angle in all three books. Sometimes, you have to give up the fire and aspire to be a good person instead.
Final Thoughts: There are three reasons to read the Hunger Games books: they go places most young adult literature is afraid to seek out, they take an interesting look at the inner lives of teenagers, and they're fun as hell. Sure, they can be a be a bit bleak and even downright painful at times, but the story is extremely entertaining. I liked these books a hell of a lot, and I'd recommend them across the board.