A while back I picked up a read The Hunger Games. In a bit of an overprotective jealous streak I shared neither my thoughts or opinion about the book. A fact I’m about to rectify. The Hunger Games is set in the future, a postapocalytpic future, where the world we know has seemingly been devastated and society has been reduced to 12 isolated Districts rigidly controlled by the authoritative Capital. Every year to “honor” the memory of the districts’ failed rebellion citizens are forced to suffer a Reaping where every child over a certain age is entered into a lottery and two names, one male and one female, are chosen to compete in the titular Hunger Games where the competitors for each district are pitted against one another in a last man standing, no holds barred, battle to the death.
In the opening novel in the series readers are introduced to the fiercely independent Katniss, a young women who has taken on the responsibility of caring for her family after her father’s death in a mine explosion. Her love and caring for her friends and family is one of her most defining traits and it those notions of love and responsibility that see Katniss volunteering to take her sister Prim’s place in the Hunger Games. What ensues is an exciting, tragic, and horrific journey through a dark dystopian future with a dash of teen drama. Despite being a young adult book The Hunger Games pulls no punches when it comes to violence and horror. The competitors kill one another in creative ways while the environment offers further danger in the form of traps and rapid switch ups in temperature and climate. The violence isn’t the only horror and sick manipulation and callous actions of the Capital are both surprising and absolutely chilling. The Capital itself is thrown into stark contrast with the Districts it rule. Where the latter are impoverished that formers is opulent, decadent and rife with excesses. With surprising deft strokes Collins manages to craft a believable world made so less because of the details of its existence, which are in truth quite scarce, but thanks to the people who inhabit.
None of this would matter one bit if Collins hadn’t populated The Hunger Games with characters who manage to stir the emotions of readers. The aforementioned main character Katniss, with the responsibility of caring for her family weighing on her young shoulders is still in a teen girl with all the emotional hang-ups, drama, and uncertain that are rife during ones teenage years. The only difference being that the teenage drama is heightened by the very real threat of death. Along with Katniss is her adorable and innocent younger sister Prim, her best friend and potential love interest Gale, and her fellow District 12 competitor Peeta. Katniss and Peeta, particularly their relationship, forms a major focus of the novel in both the life and death competition in the arena and the competition to win the adoration of the audience.
I’m only skimming the details here but the bottom line is that The Hunger Games is a remarkably exciting and engrossing read no matter what age you are. It, excuse the pun, leaves you hungry for more despite it’s satisfying conclusion. Which is a good thing since the second book of the series, Catching Fire, has been out for some time now. What isn’t good is that fact’s effect on my sleep since I managed pick up a read that sequel in a single evening of frenetic reading. If you don’t want to spoil The Hunger Games now is the time to stop reading (to be fair also recommend skipping the blurb for Catching Fire).
Catching Fire is the Empire Strikes Back to The Hunger Games’ A New Hope. I don’t just mean that by virtue of it being the second part of a trilogy. In terms of tone, particularly the books’ finale, Catching Fire manges a darker more hard-edged stance then The Hunger Games, and is all the better because of it. At the end of The Hunger Games Katniss and Peeta are victorious having used their popularity with the audience and the threat of suicide to defy the Capital and both emerge victorious. The are victorious but it is a victory that has left them damaged emotionally and physically with Katniss seemingly suffering the brunt of the strain the Hunger Games have placed on her relationship with Gale and the effect that the revelation of her subterfuge regarding her feelings for Peeta has had with her relationship with him.
Of course, things get worse before they can get better. It turns out that Katniss and Peeta’s actions in the games have sparked unrest and dissent amongst the various districts. And it is Katniss, under threat to her own person and those she loves, who must convince everyone that defiance was an act and nothing more. What ensues is a heart wrenching journey that brings our two main characters back to the arena where everything began; thanks to a special rule introduced for the 75th Annual Hunger Games.
Catching Fire explores the districts in some detail as Katniss and Peeta embark on their victory tour. The descriptions offer greater insight into how the Capital keeps the districts controlled, with an eye towards the brutality in some the districts closer to the Capital than the more far-removed District 12. Much to her credit, and as in The Hunger Games, Collins doesn’t flinch away from using violence to underscore the suffering of the people of the districts as well as to highlight the touching bravery of those few willing to defy the Capital. Again Collins still manages to paint the corners of her world with rather broad strokes using the people and their actions, rather then the places, to accentuate the reality of her world.
The Hunger Games themselves only make up a surprisingly small section of the book. Tense and action-packed with new threats to deal with. For all the acting of the previous book the relationship between Peeta and Katniss deepens in a believable and meaningful way with all the characters we’ve come to know each managing to grow. My particularly favorite, despite his brief appearance, is Katniss’ stylist and fashion designer Cinna. Clever, smart, and loyal to his charge he manages to be endearing without feeling like a foil and his unspoken support of Katniss’ choices and attitude are both heartening and heartwarming. Even the drunken Haymitch grows as a character gaining added dimensions and hidden depths as he watches over his charges and as we learn about his experiences in the Hunger Games.
The ending of Catching Fire is both a relief and a tragedy. Much like the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back the closing the scenes of triumph are mitigated by tragedy and betrayal. Bittersweet. Unfortunately I can’t immediately jump into the final volume, Mockingjay, which is due out on August 24. Though, for anyone who hasn’t read either Catching Fire or The Hunger Games that means there is ample time to go out and plow through both these titles. Despite it YA target audience these books should be just as appealing to adults and make for some of the best books I’ve read…probably of all time. I honestly can’t recommend them enough.