Catching Fire and Mockingjay

by Suzanne Collins

 

I know I’m lame for reading these. You should’ve seen my shame when the lady at Barnes & Noble surmised that I must’ve read the first one and run out to buy the next two. Yes, ma’am, that’s exactly what happened. But I bought them, I read them, and my blog is for book reviews, so here we are.

I’m reviewing them together. Nobody is going to read Mockingjay without having read the first two, and if you liked The Hunger Games enough to read Catching Fire you’re probably gonna go all the way. On top of that, though Collins divided it into two books it really is one story: how Katniss, her friends and family, and the country of Panem deal with the repercussions of the 74th Hunger Games. After their survival and emergence as victors, Katniss and Peeta have become celebrities and symbols. As such, all players in the now turbulent Panem seek to use them in propaganda, parts that they must play if they want to keep themselves, their families, and each other safe.

Yea, it’s really no surprise that I liked these books, given that I liked the first, but I was surprised by the direction they took, especially Mockingjay. The main characters, including Katniss, Peeta, and their alcoholic mentor Haymitch, were well written in The Hunger Games, but Collins manages to grow them in interesting ways throughout the later installments. Lesser characters, such as Katniss’ sister Primrose and her old friend, Gale Hawthorne, are fleshed out a bit, which is a relief, since much of the drama revolves around them. Prim was the reason for Katniss leaving her home and risking her life, yet The Hunger Games never really gave us much time to get to know her. Likewise with Gale, who is set up as Peeta’s romantic rival.

These books are very different from most young adult fiction. It remains true in Catching Fire and Mockingjay that not much is black and white for Katniss; she is not given many easy choices, and often realizes that she directly or indirectly allowed horrible things to happen. Very early on in Catching Fire, she and Peeta say the wrong things on their national tour- where they must pretend to be loyal to the Capitol- and the Capitol retaliates by summarily executing innocent citizens. Katniss blames herself for these deaths, and they are just the first of many who will suffer for her mistakes.

I think what most impressed me about these novels was the way that Collins evokes real events, historical and contemporary. I wrote of The Hunger Games that District 12 reminded me of North Korea during the famine; the people are hungry and hopeless. As Katniss and Peeta inspire a revolution countrywide, I was reminded of many scenes, from World War II to the Arab Spring. The public displays of cruelty could’ve come from Libya; the scenes of urban warfare from yesterday’s stories out of Homs, Syria. I realize that Collins wrote the books before these events, which makes the parallels all the more interesting.

Collins also manages to tell a pretty compelling story of insurgency, and seems to know what she’s talking about. Everything from organization to the use of propaganda seem straight out of the Taliban’s playbook. Again, this just surprises me coming from a book for young adults, who are perhaps used to the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight, which aren’t known for their accurate reflection of modern warfare.

Speaking of the latter series, one of the things I didn’t like was the love triangle among Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. I mean, we spent the whole first book getting to know Peeta, and hearing how confused Katniss is about which of her feelings, if any, are real, and then all of a sudden she can’t decide between Gale and Peeta? Then she likes one, then the other, then a dude kisses her, and you just start thinking… what a slut. No, I’m kidding, but it gets irritating, and reminds me of what the Twilight series must be like. What I’m imagining, I mean, cause I didn’t read that shit.

Also, I felt like while Catching Fire was impeccably plotted, the pacing of Mockingbird was a little bit off. There might be a couple of chapters based around one relatively minor event, while huge battles seem to be cut short. The last few chapters especially seemed to be rushed, even though they were perhaps some of the most important and dramatic in the whole series. The book is interesting enough that this isn’t a major problem, but I think Mockingjay might’ve been better as two books.

On the whole I really liked this series, and felt like Catching Fire and Mockingjay actually improved on The Hunger Games in some respects.

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

 

So Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, a coal mining province in a futuristic, dystopian North American nation known as Panem. The central government, known as the Capitol, forces each district to send two teenagers to participate as Tributes in the Hunger Games, which appear to be a combination of a beauty pageant and a gladiator battle. The drama of the novel derives from the struggle of Katniss and others to survive and thrive in a society that alternates between brutally violent and hilariously superficial.

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of The Hunger Games before the movie trailer came out a month or so ago. I figured I couldn’t miss a big budget fantasy movie, especially with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. She was, uh, real good in Winter’s Bone. But I asked around, mostly on Google and Wikipedia, and apparently it’s a pretty popular series. I picked up the book because I figured that it’s always better to read the book before seeing the movie, even though I knew it was not really meant for my demographic.

I think the appeal of The Hunger Games, for me, is twofold. First, I like the world Collins creates, which at first glance seems to be a shallow imitation of both real states like North Korea as well as fictional countries from 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. As the novel progresses, however, Panem comes into its own and becomes a real and nuanced country, a state that is effective in some areas on weak in others, simultaneously harsh and… well, mostly it’s harsh, but occasionally sensitive to public opinion.

In a similar fashion, the characters also slowly develop into real people with complex motivations. Katniss is introduced as a reluctant hero, wanting only to stay home and look after her sister; she is drawn into the world of the Capitol against her will, and is uncomfortable with her newfound fame. Other characters initially seem thinly drawn: her state-appointed mentor, the drunk has-been; her fellow District 12 Tribute, the golden boy; so on down the list. These characters, however, all have an array of motivations that Katniss, from whose perspective the novel is told, might not see at first (though she also sometimes seems overly sensitive).

The characters interact with their world, and each other, in often unexpected ways. Even those characters who are not risking their lives often have significant emotional or political investment in the way the Hunger Games unfold. There are not many ‘good versus evil’ moments in this book, which is refreshing for a young adult fantasy. I mean, as much as we all love Harry Potter (or whatever the kids are reading these days) almost every one of those characters can be described, in the end, as good or evil. Katniss and company make tough choices based on their personal histories and desires, and this is what really keeps the story moving, rather than the considerable action and excitement. That’s not to say that there aren’t predictable or cliché moments, but the ones there are don’t overwhelm the narrative. Parts of The Hunger Games certainly surprised me and I even found myself laughing at times, which usually does not happen to me while reading. I guess the humor can be a bit dark, but I found it nearly as important as the drama.

On another note, I think there’s this idea that a simply written book indicates a lack of literary merit. Thus, Vladimir Nabokov is a genius because his books are incomprehensible, while Dan Brown sucks because his sentences are short. This is malarkey: Dan Brown sucks for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with his lack of verbosity. I’ll be the first to admit, Collins’ writing can be a bit uneven, but in her defense she is writing in a certain style because that’s how her book is structured. We’re inside Katniss’ head and we get to hear what she thinks is important, like it or not. This results in some chapters being much more readable than others, but it’s a relatively minor distraction. That said, I think that people like the book because the characters and the world are well constructed, not because the prose is breathtakingly beautiful. (It’s not.)

I think that anyone remotely interested in fantasy, or just a light read, would enjoy this book. For what it’s worth, I will probably read the sequels and see the movie.