THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press, 2008, 374 pages, 978-0-439-02348-1, Hardcover, $17.99
Anyone who frequents book blogs probably learned about The Hunger Games ages and ages ago, just as I did. And no doubt, if you haven’t read it yet, you might do so before the release of the movie next year. In my case, I had intended to read it eventually before the start of the film, but once I mentioned this to a co-worker, she insisted that I borrow her copy of the series immediately. And so I did.
I won’t pound you over the head with a long synopsis (when do I ever?), since this is a fairly well-known title by now. But just in case someone isn’t familiar with the premise, here’s the extremely condensed version:
The nation of Panem is broken up into twelve districts and the Capitol. As punishment for a previous rebellion, the Capitol has determined that every year one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen will be taken from their districts and forced to fight to the death in a specially designed arena for the televised Hunger Games. When Katniss Everdeen from district twelve volunteers to participate in order to protect her sister, she knows she must do all she can to survive. As the main source of food and income for her family, her death might not simply be her own, but also her mother and sister’s. Being forced to fight and kill other people, however, especially when one of the victims might be the boy from her own district, isn’t quite the same as hunting for food.
It took me some time to really get into this book. The setup took much longer than I anticipated, and the writing was occasionally dry. I’m in the habit of saying that I like straightforward writing, but I think that, in this book, the writing was perhaps TOO straightforward for me, if that’s possible. I was also taken unawares by the dark tone of the book. No, a story about children killing each other isn’t going to be glitter and rainbows by any means, but right from the get-go I got the sense that everything about Katniss’s life in district twelve was perfectly dismal. As emotions go, this story elicits some strong ones even before we learn who will be sent to perform in the Hunger Games.
Yet it was this same looming despair that kept me interested in the story in the beginning. Then it was the conflicting emotions that Katniss experienced as she learned that she would have to fight a boy who had helped her in the past. Then, of course, it was the fighting itself, and Katniss’s ability to outsmart the other Tributes.
So, let’s get straight to the point. Did I like this book? Yes, I did. Sure, it took me some time to get into it. Frankly, I think the lollygagging at the Capitol was a little unnecessary. I know it was exposition, and I know it was meant to set Katniss up as a star in the production, despite her own misgivings, but even so. It took me two weeks to get to the actual games, which is ridiculous considering the entire book isn’t even 400 pages in reasonably large print.
That said, I can appreciate what the setup did for the reader in terms of demonstrating the difference between the Capitol and the districts. It also provided plenty of time to heighten the tension between Katniss and Peeta, which is pretty important to the rest of the book.
Speaking of Katniss and Peeta, I rather liked them both as characters. It’s obvious, even when reading from her point of view, that Katniss is oblivious to how she’s perceived from the outside. She doesn’t think about things like that because her main concern has been taking care of her family, and now that she’s away from them and being told to act in certain ways, she isn’t sure how to do that. She’s a serious young woman who does what she must to survive.
Peeta, by contrast, is a little less insulated. He’s aware of other people–he’s certainly aware of Katniss–and he knows how to be likeable. He’s an excellent partner for Katniss for this very reason. They balance each other out and play off of each other throughout the story. And, of course, since the reader is privy to realizations about them that Katniss herself is not, it causes quite a bit of tension.
I’ll admit that I felt the ending was a great big downer. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the story, and the way the games were handle was great, but man…. I got to the end and sort of wished that I hadn’t. Of course, this is also what makes the book really interesting. Collins isn’t afraid to upend expectations, and the “happy ending” that most readers were probably hoping for is no exception. I’m definitely locked into reading volume two, since I really need to know what comes next. Katniss certainly hasn’t made things easy for herself.
So, the ultimate verdict? A few rough patches, but ultimately a story that I find both interesting and worthwhile. I’m sure next year’s movie will be great, and in the meantime I’ll be reading Catching Fire.