The Hunger Games
Though I was, of course, aware of the fervor surrounding this series, I’d never read it until now, nor have I seen the movies. (I do own some nail polish inspired by it, though!) Still, I managed to absorb a few facts through cultural osmosis.
1) The heroine is named Katniss.
2) There is also a boy called Peeta.
3) There is an MC lady with pink hair.
4) A competition and various districts?
I came close to immediately casting the book aside when Katniss casually admits to having once attempted to drown a kitten in a bucket, but this turned out to be an effective way of showing how her impoverished, hardscrabble existence in “the Seam” of District 12 has forced Katniss (now 16) to become ruthlessly practical in order to keep her family alive after the death of her father five years previously in a mining accident.
Katniss lives in Panem, which we learn “rose from the ashes of a place that was once called North America.” There were originally thirteen districts, but when they rebelled against the Capitol, District 13 was obliterated and the Hunger Games were established to discourage future rebellion attempts. Each year, during a ceremony called “the Reaping,” a boy and girl from each District are selected to fight to the death in the games, which are televised across the nation. Watching them is mandatory. It’s the Capitol’s way of saying, “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do.” The person Katniss loves most in the world is her 12-year-old sister, Prim, so when it’s Prim’s name that gets drawn at the Reaping, Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place. A boy who once showed kindness to Katniss when she was starving, Peeta Mellark, is chosen as the male “tribute.”
I’m extremely thankful I didn’t abandon this book at the outset, because what ensues is fascinating YA dystopia at its best. Katniss and Peeta are assigned a drunken mentor named Haymitch (a past victor from District 12) who advises them in various aspects of strategy, part of which is keeping Katniss’ archery prowess a secret from her competitors and part of which is creating a narrative that the two of them are actually in love. Katniss believes for a long time that Peeta is faking it every bit as much as she is, but that’s not the case.
Katniss is an extremely resourceful protagonist, and watching her brainstorm solutions to tricky problems reminded me a fair amount of Sarasa in Basara, which is quite a big compliment. There was a little more of the romance stuff than I really wanted, mostly Katniss being confused about what her real feelings for Peeta are and what that means for her relationship with her hunting buddy, Gale, back home. But most of the time, she’s extremely capable and badass and yet not emotionally closed off.
I loved learning about her world and am sufficiently worried that she’s now under increased scrutiny from the Capitol due to her actions in the games. I cannot possibly start book two soon enough.
As Catching Fire begins, Katniss and Peeta—rich, famous, and hated by the Capitol—are about to embark upon their victory tour. After President Snow puts in a personal appearance to inform Katniss that she and Peeta must convince the nation that they defied the Capitol simply out of love for one another, they do their best but are unsuccessful. Unrest continues to foment. As Katniss debates whether to flee with her family or stay and fight, President Snow announces the rules of this year’s Quarter Quell, a special Hunger Games that occurs every 25 years. This time, the tributes will be chosen from past victors, which means Katniss and Peeta are going back in.
I found the first half of the book to be pretty slow. Katniss spends a lot of time being wishy-washy regarding her feelings for Gale and Peeta and it becomes tiresome. There’s literally a line that says, “I really can’t think about kissing when I’ve got a rebellion to incite.” “NO YOU CAN’T, KATNISS,” I wrote back in my notes. However, the action picks up considerably once the rules of the Quarter Quell are announced.
This time, Katniss has half a dozen allies in the arena, so doesn’t have quite as many opportunities to solve tricky problems entirely on her own. (Mostly, she’s focused on keeping Peeta alive and has extracted a promise from Haymitch that this time he will prioritize Peeta’s survival over her own.) Yet, she is the one who understands what brilliant Wiress, who struggles to communicate clearly, is trying to tell the group about the arena and, later, quickly grasps what inventive Beetee is really trying to achieve with his electrical trap.
I did not see the ending coming at all, and while I don’t think this book is quite as strong as the first, it still ends with our characters in an interesting place. Haymitch has broken his promise and saved Katniss because she is the one who’s the face of the rebellion and she’s absolutely furious with him, and yet is that something she can walk away from? Meanwhile, Peeta is in the grip of the Capitol. Onward to the final installment!
Mockingjay is quite a bit different than the other two books in the trilogy, and wound up being my favorite. Katniss, Finnick, Beetee, and a small group of survivors from District 12 find themselves in District 13, which had not been destroyed as the Capitol claimed. Katniss blames herself for the destruction of District 12 and spends the opening chapters in misery, not knowing whether Peeta is alive or dead, hating everyone and herself most of all. Meanwhile, she’s being pressured by the rebels to take on the symbolic role of the Mockingjay to unite the districts against the Capitol. It’s only after Peeta appears on television, calling for a ceasefire, that Katniss agrees to the arrangement, forcing President Coin (leader of District 13) to agree that Peeta won’t be executed as a traitor and also hoping to negate his influence on the populace.
I loved that District 13 is not some utopia, and is almost as controlling as the Capitol. I loved that Katniss, a volatile teenager, isn’t actually leading the revolution, but is initially just a figurehead who features in propaganda videos designed to inspire the districts. I loved the scenes where the people of District 13 flee to caverns during an air raid, and the fun-starved citizens are entertained by the antics of Buttercup chasing a flashlight beam. I loved Prim’s growing skill and confidence as a healer. I loved Finnick and his revelations about how Snow abuses victors, particularly attractive ones, and how we see a totally new side to him when he’s able to finally marry the woman he loves. I loved that, after the districts are united against the Capitol, the rebels have no more use for Katniss and intend to leave her behind until she manages to complete a grueling training course and qualifies to go to the Capitol as part of a sharpshooting squad, led by Boggs. I really loved Boggs, who acts as a sort of father figure to Katniss and wants to protect her from President Coin’s machinations. I loved all the scenes of battle in the Capitol, especially the fact that Katniss doesn’t storm the president’s mansion and take Snow out single-handedly. The ending is great and very satisfying.
I didn’t love the romantic triangle stuff, though it’s obvious by now that it isn’t really a triangle anymore. Katniss loves Peeta, but she hasn’t realized it yet. Things are complicated when he is rescued from the Capitol and immediately tries to kill her, having had his memories altered as part of Snow’s torture. It takes a long time for glimmers of his real self to emerge, but once that happens they begin to grow back together. I did feel that some of this was rushed at the very end, which is a complaint I could also make about the deaths of some major characters. I realize that in the heat of battle there’s no time to stop and grieve, but it was still kind of a bummer.
All in all, this is an excellent trilogy. I regret that it took me so long to read it but am happy that I finally did!
Note: Ten years after Mockingjay was published, a prequel was released. Alas, reviews are not good and I’ve decided not to potentially sully my opinion of the series by reading it.