It’s decidedly late and I am still ridiculously tired after yesterday’s marathon of awakeness (what? It’s a word!), but I wanted to get this written out before I fall asleep. Plus I wanted to do it while it was not only still fresh in my head, but while the end of the series is still recently completed.
This is actually a pretty spoilerless review. I've avoided discussing certain events and plotpoints in depth so that you can pretty much read this series clean.
My first comment here should be that I kept the first book in this series at the end of a long stick for a LONG time. The synopsis is so much like the plot to the book/film BATTLE ROYALE that I was initially upset that the author would so blatantly steal a plot. Or so I thought. After much prodding by various friends who not only enjoyed the first book, but couldn’t put it down I finally began to relent. My brain started to list other plotlines that are very similar, LOGAN’S RUN, The RUNNING MAN, 1984....the list goes on. In fact, after reading the first book, I can certifiably say that the ONLY resemblance it bears to BATTLE ROYALE is the idea of having kids kill each other till the last one is standing...the resemblance ends there, and Collins takes us off on one hell of a ride through her imagination, and I am ashamed I ever thought she stole any plotlines.
The only good thing that comes from having waited forever to read this series is that the third and final volume MOCKINGJAY only just came out, so I didn’t have to wait like the fans did for the sequels to be released. This is a very good thing, for as I found out very quickly I was DEAD WRONG in giving this book a pass and dismissing it as a BATTLE ROYALE knockoff. I will freely eat my hat now. The first book in the series grabbed hold of me within a few pages and threatened to never let me go. I sat with rapt attention and read every damned word. By the middle of it I was rushing to get the end to find out what happens.
So, the first book THE HUNGER GAMES.
The characters are so realized in their respective roles. Katniss is pitch perfect. She is a hero, but is also struggling to grow up in a world so cruel and unlike our own and questions herself all the time. It’s those around her, some of who she sees as irreparably broken who inevitably bring her nuggets of truth and profound wisdom. It’s nice to see Collins knows how people in real life behave, but she goes us one better and shows us how really messed up people in a really messed up world behave, and she does it effortlessly. Haymitch’s alcoholism and surliness that hides his soft side. Kat’s mother is a completely adept healer, but hasn’t the foggiest clue how to maintain a relationship with her daughter without her dead husband as a buffer. Kat’s sister Prim (in whose place she takes in the Hunger Games) is quirky, and childish in equal amounts. Her prep team lead by flamboyant Cinna are surreal in their representation and this clearly shows us the excess that The Capitol lives within and how it has blinded its own citizens to the atrocities they watch on TV every year. Even the other tributes (Games competitors) are so well fleshed out as teens that I was pretty blown away by them. Each in their own way could be lain as templates on top of people I knew in highschool, easily. The one that comes to the forefront, and Kat’s most endearing relationship is not with either of the love interests (yes, there is a love triangle, I’ll get to that later), instead it is with another competitor, a little girl from District 11 named Rue who reminds Kat of her little sister. I felt more for that relationship in a matter of pages than I did in anyone else in the rest of the first book. It is stunningly realized and I can’t even tell you how much I admire the author for her skill in writing this. The Games themselves (which start at about the halfway point in the book) are paced like wildfire, and everything that happens in them is completely immersive. I can tell you it was a late night I stayed up and finished reading the first one.
Then we come to the second volume, CATCHING FIRE, and away I go again. What’s interesting here though is the pace change. I think Collins realized she had a winner on her hands with the first book, but another author might have been compelled to try to recapture the traits of the first book in some way in the second. Collins doesn’t attempt that, and in fact was rather deft at restarting her story build from a new square one. So we act like the first book was prologue and the second book we stop, take a breath, and the story begins anew, but from a different jumping off point. One in which all the pieces have been laid, we understand motivations and ideas. So I get into it right away and think, well this is a change, but it’s still good.
That’s when Collins starts to throw me curve balls.
I can honestly say that aside from a few moments in the final volume, CATCHING FIRE contains the most head jarringly awesome curve balls in a book. Everything I expected to happen....didn’t. She went in directions with the story I never could have imagined, and it made for some really great storytelling. The second book DOES however read like a bridge to the third. You can tell, and you can feel it coming. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing at all though. It’s just that you KNOW you are reading the second volume in a trilogy. The story in the second book forces Kat and Co. To grow though, and that was really pleasant to see, an author who realized that her characters can’t stagnate. Children inevitably grow up...and in this series, they have to grow up FAST.
At this point, for a second I want to draw your attention to the other recent YA series that got this much press. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I read the first 2 and a half books of that series before realizing a few things. 1. That author can’t write for shit and wouldn’t know a good story if it jumped up and bit her in the ass - 2. The protagonist was a spoiled little brat who toyed with the emotions of all those around her and was annoying as hell – 3. I don’t want my niece to grow up thinking that good qualities are a rotten vile girl who pines after two monsters out of a fairytale like they weren’t exactly that.
I wanted to draw your attention to that series for one reason. Suzanne Collins bests Meyers in EVERY category. Collins can WRITE, and not only that but she weaves a completely enthralling story that will keep you company till the wee hours. Her teens act like TEENS, and her adults act like ADULTS! Also, her story has romance in it, but is not composed ENTIRELY of it the way Meyer’s series is. Meyer’s series is one long boring ass romance story about a couple in a meadow who keep telling each other they love one another, and she tries to disguise it as a vampire story, or a werewolf one. At any rate, Collins has a full story to tell you over the course of her books, but she doesn’t let the romance aspects get in the way, and in fact the romance and love triangle kind of has a bit of a back seat, and let me tell you how refreshing that was. In a category where the majority of books for YA are not-so-subtly disguised romance books full of tripe about hot male angels, vampires, werewolves, genies, or trolls. Seriously, I dare you to go into your local bookshop and hit the teen section and tell me that over half of the books aren’t EXACTLY the above description in some way. Thankfully Collins tells us a worthwhile story of a future where a corrupt city of people dominate the others through oppression and the games, and how society is so beaten down they just take it, until one bloody day at the end of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, one young girl makes a decision, and changes the world.
The third volume MOCKINGJAY finishes up strong, and again Collins starts throwing me curves. Like characters not doing what I thought they would, or Katniss having to deal with stuff I didn’t think she would have to. Two REALLY BIG things happen in the final 150 pages of the third book that just blew my mind away, and Collins can be credited with my open-mouthed gape at the pages. It finishes the story, but in a completely different way than I thought she would, and it’s rough and ragged, but that’s the point. These characters have all been through absolute and utter hell, and she does a very creditable job of showing us that in her ending, which has bouts of happiness, and bitter sweetness, while all the while not losing that sense of cautionary tale. I am in awe here. It’s nearly 1AM and I am sure I’ll be thinking about the last book well into my sleep.
Finally, let’s talk about the love triangle. Katniss loves both Peeta and Gale, but for different reasons. Now, I’m with you...why does there NEED to be a love triangle, navigating the waters of love at the tender age of 16 or 17 is hard enough with one couple, let alone three people. So why don’t these authors just leave it at two. Well, thankfully Collins makes it work here and I think it is due to the fact that like I said above, it sits on the backburner. When the characters bring it up, I don’t groan and I keep thinking how deftly she writes it only when it needs to occur so that her audience doesn’t get bored. That was nice. For the record, I liked both Peeta and Gale, but to me Gale always feels at arms length, and Peeta is so prominent in the first book, and is so much like I aspire to be as a guy...I like him better.
Take from this the following: If there is a successor to the Harry Potter-J.K. Rowling crown it is Not, I repeat NOT Stephenie Meyer. It is, without a doubt Suzanne Collins.
A great series. That grows with each book, and each on their own stand up as different animals, and that’s part of what makes the series endure. The first book is about lost innocence, the second is about confusion and reaction to that loss, and the third is about making adult choices and the retributions and gifts that come along with those choices.
Don’t be like me. Give this series a chance. It is one of the best I have read.