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Collins’ Hunger Games Series is Catching Fire

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor


ImageWith Mockingjay, the final book in the Hunger Games series, coming out this week (August 24), I thought it was a good time to revisit this review of the series I wrote last year.

If anything, the series has only gained momentum in the past year, becoming one of the most-anticipated book releases of the year.  Scholastic is printing 1.2 million copies of the first run–up from the 750,000 originally announced.  There are midnight release parties planned for release day.  And the series has now expanded into the memorabilia market, with t-shirts, posters, and slap bracelets, among other things.  Forget this being one of the most anticipated teen book releases of the year; this is one of the most anticipated book releases of the year, period.

But to me, the hype doesn’t matter.  I first read The Hunger Games shortly after it was released in September 2008; immediately after I finished, I flipped the book back to the beginning and started again.  And even though I pretty much stopped reading young adult fiction toward the end of last year–having decided that I’m tired of protagonists ten years younger than me–I knew I would come back for this one.  This is the kind of series that should make you forget the distinction between young adult and adult fiction; to me, it is simply a really good story, and I would be reading the conclusion even if the series hadn’t taken off like it did.

Furthermore, in the last two years, I have read lots of other books and series; most of them have floated out of my head within a few weeks.  Yet the Hunger Games series has haunted me for the last two years.  I care about the characters, especially Katniss, and I want to find out whether her spirit and integrity are enough to triumph in that messed-up world of hers.  I’ve been speculating about how things will turn out.  I find myself worried about which characters will make it to the end–and which won’t. 

My speculation: I don’t think it’s going to be an easy book to read for anyone who’s emotionally invested in the series in any way.  This was never going to be the kind of series that called for easy or simple conclusions, and I have faith that Collins will not water it down simply because her target audience is younger.  I don’t think the series will have a happily-ever-after ending; dystopian sci-fi isn’t really designed for it.  I think that there will be triumph, but it will be tempered by loss.  And in spite of the fact that the romantic subplot of the series has been the main topic of conversation on message boards, I think it will remain a secondary element in the finale; the series never was, nor should it have been, a romance.  And I very much suspect that I’m going to be a wreck Wednesday morning after I finish the book, so much so that I may have to lie and tell my coworkers that a family member is ill or that my sciatica is acting up again or something.  I don’t think they would understand why reading a dystopian teen sci-fi novel would leave me so ravaged in the morning.

And it will, I’m certain, leave me ravaged.  Because no matter how Mockingjay ends, the anticipation will be over, and that will be that.  It will be bittersweet, a goodbye of sorts.  Although I might be able to go back to visit, it just won’t be the same anymore.  I read the first book three times in a row before I could put it down, it left me so breathless with wonder and anticipation.  After Tuesday, I won’t be able to get that feeling back ever again.  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me a little sad.

***

Last September, The Hunger Games–the first in Suzanne Collins’ new young adult series–was released to critical acclaim.  Stephenie Meyer (of Twilight fame) praised the book on her website.  And no less than Stephen King gave the book a favorable review in his Entertainment Weekly column.  And although I may not be a bestselling author, I did name it as my pick for last year’s best book.

Now, the second book in the planned trilogy, Catching Fire, has finally been released.  And after waiting a year to read it, I was not disappointed.  Catching Fire is just as thrilling and exciting as its predecessor, and it delves into more complex, ambiguous issues than the first book.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here.  The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen, a smart, resourceful 16 year old.  Katniss has had a hard life; her father, a coal miner, died when she was 11, leaving her mother emotionally wrecked and unable to support their family.  As such, Katniss becomes their primary provider.

Katniss lives in District 12 of Panem, the country that arose after the fall of the United States.  Panem is the very essence of “dystopian”: 12 districts, ruled by an oppressive Capitol.  As punishment for their rebellion against the Capitol three-quarters of a century before, the districts are forced to participate in the televised Hunger Games every year, a Survivor-like competition where two children from each district are chosen; placed into a large, outdoor arena; and forced to kill one another until only one remains.

When Katniss’ younger sister is selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her place.  Her fellow District 12 tribute is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son who once helped Katniss when her family was starving and harbors long-buried romantic feelings toward her.  As a skilled hunter with unparalleled skills with a bow-and-arrow, Katniss has the necessary attributes to make it out of the Hunger Games alive.  But in doing so, she will be responsible for the deaths of 23 other children, including Peeta.

The dystopian future/oppressive government commentary is nothing we haven’t heard before–1984 springs immediately to mind.  Furthermore, the Capitol’s horrors are so extreme that readers are unlikely to relate them to real society.  But where Collins’ wry observational skills really hit home is in how the shallow, materialistic Capitol culture interacts with the Hunger Games.  Many of the Capitol viewers don’t even seem to process the fact that children are dying inside the arena.  Instead, they look at it as an entertainment event, viewing the deaths of these children as nothing more than pop culture gossip.  Granted, watching teenagers humiliate themselves during the American Idol auditions isn’t exactly like watching them brutally murder one another, but regardless, we do seem to have a rather detached, shallow perspective when it comes to our “reality” shows.

Although the Hunger Games books are young adult novels, they don’t read like them.  Rather than revel in the fluffy territory where many teen-oriented novels dwell, this series actually challenges its readers to think about things.  What would you do if you were in an arena, forced to kill or be killed?  Could you murder the boy who had once saved your life?  Would you revolt against the Capitol and risk the lives of your family and loved ones, or would you betray every better principle you had to keep them safe?

But this is, alas, a teen novel, so there is a romantic subplot here.  Katniss has two potential suitors: her friend Gale, a stoic 18 year old who secretly hates the Capitol, and Peeta.  Unlike many teen novels (yes, Twilight, I’m looking at you), Katniss’ ultimate choice isn’t obvious.  But maybe that’s the point: when you’re worried about survival, getting a boyfriend probably isn’t your first priority.  And when you’re worried that your children might be ultimately selected to battle their peers to the death, marriage and kids no longer seems like a viable possibility.

Some critics are predicting that that this will be the next Twilight-like phenomenon, as buzz about the series has only increased in the year it has come out.  What separates The Hunger Games series from other young adult novels with female protagonists is that this is the kind of series that both females and males could potentially enjoy reading.  Collins, wisely, keeps the gushy stuff to a minimum, and Katniss is the kind of strong, intelligent heroine anyone can relate to.

But The Hunger Games is only the first part of the equation.  Read on to learn more about the second book, Catching Fire.

Since it’s impossible to talk about Catching Fire without discussing the ending of The Hunger Games, I’m attaching a SPOILER WARNING  here.  Consider yourself warned.

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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