It will be impossible for me to separate these three books into individual reviews, so I’m reviewing them together. I read all three in a blur of pages this weekend – starting the first book Friday afternoon and finishing it in the wee small hours of Saturday morning, then powering through the second during the day Saturday (I had to lend it to a lovely friend of mine – one of the few to whom I lend books, as she gets my neuroses about, you know, books), then starting the third one Saturday night and finishing Sunday afternoon.
I can only think of a handful of times where I’ve a) come into a series late enough to do that but also b) found a series that inspires such devoted reading. I mean, I powered through most of The Dresden Files those last two or so weeks in London – but that’s not even the same as this. This was something wholly different.
Part of it may’ve been the fact that these are supposed to be children’s books. As Sarah pointed out to me during our discussion of the first book, there’s certainly a lot of death in the Harry Potter series and Narnia gets pretty violent… but this was something wholly different. This was real violence and pretty serious, heady social commentary for a children’s series. I think that may’ve been why I enjoyed it so much – I was simultaneously reminded of being a kid and having that urge to power through a series & also of the themes and issues that make some of the stuff I read now so exciting. I was worried about the overhyping of this series, but I worried needlessly – this series is worth every ounce of the hype.
The first book, The Hunger Games, sets up the world and is a surprisingly dark twist on Lord of the Flies or the underrated Japanese novel Battle Royale. Set in a post-apocalyptic North America – where humanity has absolutely decimated itself – there are twelve Districts in the nation of Panem, as well as The Capitol (located somewhere in the Rockies). Every year, two “tributes” are chosen from each District as a penalty for some rebellion 74 years ago that destroyed District 13. They are sent to an arena somewhere and then these 24 children – because they are children – battle to the death. The last one standing wins.
See what I mean about this not really being a children’s series? Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, ends up going to the games in place of her younger sister and so begins a developmental arc that can really only be traced over the three books. She goes from being a rural girl (District 12 was apparently Appalachia) to being the face of a revolution and its remarkable to journey along with her. A little frustrating at times – the present-tense, first-person narration was a bit irritating every once and a while and I had some issues with the ending… but I’ve actually made peace with those and I’ll get there.
I think one of my favorite moments/ideas in the series is the way Cinna (Katniss’ stylist for the Games) creates her image of fire. The power of the simple description should not be overlooked – this idea, seen through Katniss’ own eyes (the first-person really works here), is just played so well that it took my breath away, as it apparently did everyone else in the Capitol. Then things get intense. The arena, the bloodbath that ensues, the hunt-or-die mentality that immediately takes over these children… it is gripping and intense reading (hence how fast it flew by) but they’re CHILDREN for godsakes. And yet… you almost forget that at times. Then something happens to remind you and you think “my god, how could I be so enthralled by this violence and terror, these are kids dying” but you’re still just as swept up by it – and that’s Suzanne Collins’ triumph, I think. Because Katniss feels the same way – she is a child, she’s killing children/watching children kill other children, and yet… she’s right there in it, mostly because she HAS to be. That spirit, that indomitable will to survive that exists in every human being… we’ve forgotten that it exists just as powerfully in children.
The love story that develops over the course of the novel is aptly handled and that’s what, I think, sold me on the series being more than just a good read. Katniss is playing the game but she’s also confused about whether or not there’s something real. She’s playing to the cameras (because of course the whole thing is filmed) but she’s also maybe developing real emotions. Being 16 is tough – I remember feeling very similarly (though, I guess, less life-or-death…) and the fact that this book captured it so well really spoke to me.
I was then curious how Catching Fire could live up to the first book. The concept of the kids having to tour around the country while pretending to keep up their love affair was an interesting one, but I didn’t think it could sustain an entire novel. Luckily – and I’m going to have to give it away, I’m sorry – the book has a major twist about halfway through that puts everyone back into the arena. Only this time, there are adults as well as children in the games.
Suddenly, Katniss and Peeta’s age is irrelevant – they have to keep up with individuals who won previous games, individuals who are far more cold-blooded than they could maybe ever be. And yet something is happening – there’s something not right about all of it and Katniss can’t quite put her finger on it and at the same time she is running for her life through this unbelievably dangerous arena.
A word on the arenas – I perversely love them. These carefully created worlds, full of dangers and constantly filmed… it is a perverse enjoyment, for sure (that’s, I think, Collins’ point) but it is an enjoyment nonetheless. Finding traps, trying to beat them, trying to think faster than the Gamemasters… I was sitting in Central Park and I felt my pulse racing as I, too, vicariously tried to stay alive. That’s a special read, folks.
So anyway, to again spoil the second book, there was something going on – something that leads directly into the third book with a massive cliffhanger (the first->second transition was far smoother and less cliffhanger-y). I won’t go into too much but essentially the third book is wholly different from the first two – kind of like how the 7th Harry Potter was wholly different from the first six. There is a fundamental structure shift: gone are the games, this is real life.
Katniss has become the face of a revolution and the third book transitions into more of a war novel. She’s 17, remember – but she is expected to just come to terms with the fact that her entire world has been turned upside down and now she’s meant to play a role in an adult world she has really very little training for.
I wasn’t sure, at first, how I felt about the shift in tone from the first two books to the third. It was more gray where the first two had been very colorful. Perhaps this was the shift to District 13, perhaps it was the general tonal shift into a VERY real world where the arenas are, inherently, surreal… I don’t know. It took me a little while to get used to – and the frustration I felt building was mirrored by Katniss’ frustration at being unable to just do and instead having to deal with bureaucracy, etc.
I will say, however, that the end more than makes up for any weaknesses – because it reveals a very fundamental truth that too many adults miss, let alone children never understanding. The truth is, war doesn’t ever have a satisfying ending. It just ends, usually abruptly and bloodily. The aftermath, that numb feeling… that’s from that sudden shift. I was a little surprised by the ideas that come out of President Coin – more so by Katniss’ agreement – but at the same time, it made sense. Humans repeat themselves, despite our best intentions. Those in power will always subjugate those without power – and President Snow know this. Katniss’ final act of execution is brilliantly played because it reveals to everyone that maybe – just maybe – we can move on and truly change things.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I know I didn’t go too in depth on the books – I didn’t want to spoil the fun of it, of the relationships between Katniss and Gale and Peeta and everyone, of the rather shocking violence, of the excellent atmosphere of the series as a whole. I think that my speeding through of the entire trilogy in the space of roughly 60 hours should probably be recommendation enough. This trilogy is one of the most well-constructed and deeply meaningful I’ve ever read. The political and social ideas it wants to discuss are important for children AND adults to understand. Geez, I barely even discussed how everyone is so intent on appearances and doing things for the camera and how that reflects on our modern society and…. well, there’s a lot in this trilogy and it is all important to think about and consider as our society moves farther away from what it should be into what it is becoming (see: Super Sad True Love Story).