on December 27, 2014
I began this book with a certain amount of trepidation. It's certainly very popular, not just among the target audience, but with older readers, too...and I've found that I tend not to enjoy the hyped up novels very much. However, after a brief stint working in a bookstore and selling these books like hotcakes, I wanted to give them a go and see what they were all about. Do I think "The Hunger Games" is as good as it's hyped up to be? Ehhh...no. But it's an entertaining read nonetheless. Spoilers follow.
Seventy-four years after brutal war, the United States is divided into 12 districts headed by the capital city of Panem. As punishment for the war, every district must submit two tributes, one boy and one girl, to take part in the annual Hunger Games, a fight-to-the-death competition that is broadcasted for all to view, with the winner's district being rewarded with extra food until the next Games rolls around. Katniss is a sixteen year-old girl from District 12, the region that provides the Capital's coal. She lives in poverty with her distant mother and her younger sister, Primrose. The family's breadwinner since her father died in a mining accident, Katniss spends most of her time illegally hunting for food to trade and consumption and is often the only thing that keeps her family alive. During the reaping, her sister's name is pulled to be District 12's female tribute. Knowing Primrose doesn't have a chance at surviving, Katniss volunteers to go instead with the understanding that she also likely won't return. Paired with the kind yet determined Peeta as her fellow tribute and their cynical mentor Haymitch, Katniss is whisked off to the Capital, where she faces untold horrors and almost certain death in the seventy-fourth Hunger Games.
This is an exciting premise, to be sure. Unfortunately, I'm going to start this review with one of my main complaints with the story. While the concept is interesting and exciting, it doesn't hold up particularly well to scrutiny. The population can be split into two groups when it comes to the Hunger Games: those who are entertained by the carnage and drama and those who just passively accept it. I'd be willing to buy that if we were talking about adults being forced to fight...but we aren't. These are kids, some as young as 12, being pitted against one another. I find it very difficult to believe that there hasn't been some pushback from the population. Today, we see parents go to great lengths to protect their children, particularly in war torn countries where kids are often pressed into service as soldiers or forced into servitude. These parents know they face certain death, yet their willing to do what needs to be done to find and protect their children. Collins tries to explain away the passive attitude toward the games by saying that the population is too beaten down to care or object. Really? There hasn't been anyone, a single family or even a lone parent, that has tried to make a stand? It simply isn't believable when taken at more than face value.
That aside, "The Hunger Games" is an exciting read. The beginning is a little slow, but the pace really picks up once Katniss leaves District 12. Collins deserves a big pat on the back for pacing this so well. It's difficult to find a good stopping point; hard to quit reading when you just want to know what happens next. The story flows well from element to the next and it never feels forced, stilted, or, worse, boring. A lot of the YA novels I've read lately have had incredibly bloated middle portions that slowed the pace of the overall book to a crawl - thankfully, that's not the case at all here. It's also worth mentioning that nothing feels unnecessary. The action is placed where it needs to be and never feels gratuitous, and the more relaxed sequences (even in the beginning) are never seem longer than they need to be and always serve a purpose. It's riveting, it's hard to put down - it's a well-plotted and well-paced story that never bores or strays from its plot.
The plot also deserves recognition because it's damn good. One of my major complaints with books that I've read recently is how predictable they are, especially in the Young Adult genre. "The Hunger Games" is far from predictable; the twists are unexpected and genuinely surprising, and not in a nonsensical way. As I mentioned above, implausibility aside, the premise is engaging and, for the most part, different. I don't think it's a surprise to anyone that Katniss survives, what with there being two more books being told in the first person point of view. How she gets there, though, is quite a journey, full of surprises and twists, some good, some terrible. I was also pleased to see that the dystopian aspect was executed well. I've always loved "1984" and "Brave New World," and wondered how a Young Adult novel would portray the horrors and hardships of a dystopian society. Collins doesn't pull any punches with what is shown. It isn't as gritty as it could be, but we see enough to be bothered, enough to hate the people in charge of this world, and enough to make us think.
Writing-wise, "The Hunger Games" won't be winning any awards for prose in the near future, but the style used is successful for the type of story told. Collins' writing is borderline minimalistic at times, which actually ends up being a good thing. The book isn't padded out with fluff and the story is never lost in a sea of description. Rather, we get enough to understand the setting and what's going on, which gives us a book that gets right to the point and doesn't mire itself in unnecessary prose. This is a story that's meant to move quickly and keep the reader constantly turning the page, not spend pages explaining a room or the history of a particular region. There's no info-dumping here; enough background is provided to make sense, and it's incorporated into the story to not bog down the pace. Some reviewers have complained about the use of fragments, and while that's sometimes a bit of a writing peeve for me, it somehow works in this book to provide excitement and sometimes suspense between pages and, in some cases, even paragraphs. While perhaps not the most complex or technically perfect prose, the writing used in "The Hunger Games" more than serves its purpose: telling the story in a satisfying manner.
On a side note, Rue's death is easily one of the saddest things I've read in a while. To give a little background on myself, I don't like children and really dislike it when authors try to use kids to tug at readers' heartstrings. So the overall premise of the novel wasn't quite as abhorred to me as I'm sure it is to some readers. But, damn, did this little girl's demise kick me hard in the gut. I had to stop what I was doing to cry...and I'm not a terribly emotional reader. It happens so quickly that even if you know it's coming, you don't want to believe it. I expected a lot of death with such a bloody competition and a lot of attempts to make the reader tear up, but Rue's manages to be touching in a very unique way, as does Katniss' moment of defiance to honour her young friend.
Like most Young Adult novels, this one has a love triangle. Unlike many YA books, it doesn't dominate the story. That's not to say I enjoyed the romance, simply because I almost never enjoy romance, but at least the romantic elements were a little different than what we usually see. The relationship between Katniss and Peeta is initially created and played up strictly as a source for televised drama, and Katniss and Gale only have a vague flicker of romance between them with a long friendship that cements their bond. Though Katniss begins to realize she has feelings for both boys at various points in the novel, it never takes over the plot (though it - or at least the act that Katniss and Peeta are putting on - does play a significant role in at least one event). It's also worth noting that both romance options are likable. It's far too typical that the protagonist has to choose between a supernatural bad boy and her loyal best friend, but here she has two decent guys with their individual flaws and attributes. At least in this book, I never saw one as being an obviously better option than the other. Not surprisingly, she doesn't make a decision at the end of the novel, but that's ok since her romantic struggles weren't the focal point of the book.
I'm going to have to rave for a moment about how much I liked Katniss' character concept. She stands out so much from other YA protagonists I've read simply because she doesn't have a lot of the common traits. She isn't a special snowflake with unique powers that is somehow destined to save the world; she doesn't have an inferiority complex that makes her see herself as ugly while everyone else is fawning over her beauty; she doesn't see people strictly for how attractive they are; she isn't a damsel in distress...instead, she's a tough girl hardened by a rough life that has supplied her with a few key useful skills. She's a survivor, first and foremost, and has the abilities necessary to do whatever needs to be done to ensure that her family doesn't starve to death. Her archery skills quickly set her apart from the other tributes, and she's good, but only because her family relies on her to hunt for food. Better yet, she's confident in what she can do...she knows she's good and uses that to her advantage. It's hugely refreshing to read about a character that doesn't simper endlessly about how useless she feels. In the few moments where Katniss feels useless, it's because there's really nothing she can do, not because she's mired in her own self doubt. She can be cold and even caustic, but not to the point of it being annoying...in fact, it's actually portrayed as something of a fault in her character. This is a protagonist to root for, not to pity. You want her to succeed, not because you feel sorry for her or know that the fate of the world is resting on her shoulders, but because she pulls herself up and strives to survive. Well done, Collins, Katniss is one Hell of a good character as far as her design goes.
This makes it all the more tragic that she's a terrible narrator. As a character, I like Katniss quite a bit, but as the story's point of view character, she's incredibly dull. There's nothing particularly unique about her point of view, now interesting bias or flavour to how she sees things. She tells everything in a straightforward manner exactly as it is, and we never really get to get inside her head. The book likely would have been better if written from the third person point of view simply because Katniss is too boring to completely carry the story. It's also problematic that she doesn't really grow as a character. She starts as a life-hardened teenager that's been forced to grow up too fast and as a result holds some disdain for the government...and ends in pretty much the same way. I found myself wishing that she had been from District 1 or 2, someone raised to love the Capital only to be forced to realize how terrible it is after being thrown into the arena. With her beginnings being what they are, there's no room for her to really grow.
I was also disappointed that she never had to make any tough decisions regarding killing other tributes in the arena. It could have been a huge moment for Katniss, being forced to murder someone who, like her, is there for no reason other than chance. Instead, every death that Katniss witnesses or is somehow a part of is set up as chance (Fox-Face), is a mercy killing (Cato), or the victim has been made so unlikable that you don't really care that they've died (Glimmer). Others die around her, but she isn't in any way responsible for it, which absolves her of any guilt she may feel. I wanted to see Katniss struggle with these tough decisions and live with her choices. Instead, Katniss never really faces any moral dilemmas like you'd expect, and her kills are set up like mercy killings or coincidences, which is incredibly disappointing in a book that has the premise of teens being forced to kill their peers for sport.
The other characters vary in their portrayal. Katniss' family is also pretty dull. Primrose is almost sickeningly innocent and sweet. Yes, it helps us see why Katniss feels the need to protect her at all costs, but it doesn't seem terribly realistic given their life of extreme poverty and the plight of those around them. Katniss' mother is distant and uncaring, which essentially takes her out of the picture, as Katniss hates her for shutting down after Katniss' father died. It's almost too convenient as a way to take both of Katniss' parents out of the picture. Gale is more interesting since he seems to want to take a more active role in defying the government, but holds himself back because he has to support his family. Peeta initially seems too nice, but his little speech to Katniss about wanting to die on his own terms shows that there's more to him than just being a nice guy. We don't get to fully know Rue since she dies so quickly, but what we did see was satisfying. Haymitch holds a lot of promise when he isn't drunk, and I hope we get to learn more about him in the next couple books. Most of the other characters fare similarly: they have a lot of potential, but we don't see enough of them to really figure them out.
Despite my complaints, I really enjoyed "The Hunger Games." The premise is interesting and somewhat unique in the genre, even if it doesn't hold up well under scrutiny. The pacing is great and the writing style is very functional for the type of story, making the book an enjoyable reading experience. The dystopian elements are executed well and there are some truly emotional moments in the novel. There is a love triangle, which may initially make some (including me!) groan, but it manages a different take on what is typically seen, as most of the romance is fabricated to create drama for the media. What's better is that both of Katniss' choices of romantic partners are good, interesting characters with their own issues. Katniss is a refreshing, competent character with confidence in her abilities - a real treat with so many YA protagonists suffering from inferiority complexes while possessing superhuman abilities. However, despite her great character design, she's an incredibly boring point of view character that never really grows despite what she faces in the Hunger Games. Many of the other characters vary with Katniss' family being rather dull and most of the other characters showing promise. I have my complaints, but I'll still give it 4 stars. It was highly entertaining and kept me turning the pages for hours. Perhaps more importantly, it stands out in the Young Adult genre for many reasons, all of them positive.