Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay (trilogy) - Suzanne Collins

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the other districts in line by forcing them to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight-to-the-death on live TV. One boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and sixteen are selected by lottery to play. The winner brings riches and favor to his or her district. But that is nothing compared to what the Capitol wins: one more year of fearful compliance with its rule. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her impoverished district in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love. Acclaimed writer Suzanne Collins, author of the New York Times bestselling Underland Chronicles, delivers equal parts suspense and philosophy, adventure and romance, in this stunning novel set in a future with unsettling parallels to our present.

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.


  1. I will probably have to read this series after all the hype dies down. Your ringing endorsement of it makes me even more interested than I was.

  2. Yeah, it's one of those series that I swore up and down I was gonna avoid cause of the hype. Give it a go though.

  3. This was EXACTLY the reason I was avoiding this book. BATTLE ROYALE was one of my favorite reads back in the day, and I wasn't really looking for an Americopy of it. This review's making me look a little closer at it. Thanks! =D

  4. NP Knightfall. There really is way more to it and the world she creates is much different. A solid read.

  5. I don't think The Hunger Games was nearly as excellent...partly because it has such amazing post-apocalyptic dystopian novels to compete with: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, not to mention Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which won a Pulitzer recently. Just because something is young adult doesn't mean it should get a pass...for instance Lois Lowry's The Giver was written for a much younger audience, with more nuance and writing ability.

    Having said that, I can't deny it was gripping. Whatever other faults it may have, this is a quick, engaging read, and makes for the perfect material for a plane flight or other times when you just need your attention diverted.

    I reviewed it here:



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