Reasons for reading: The Hunger Games (or its sequels) found its way onto so many Best Of lists that I had to read it. Also, it's post-apocalyptic, which is a good enough reason for me.
In a distant future, there is nothing in North America but ruins, devastation and a nation of Panem, an isle of civilization amidst destruction. When one of its 13 districts surrounding the glorious Capitol rebelled, the Capitol destroyed it and created Hunger Games to punish people of the districts for disobedience: every year, each district must sacrifice two teenagers, one male and one female, to compete with the others for fame, glory and comfort. Katniss Everdeen is just an ordinary girl, but when her younger sister's name is drawn at the lottery, she volunteers to take her place in order to save her – the Hunger Games mean fight to death and there is only one winner.
The Hunger Games came as a huge surprise for me. Despite all the hype that surrounded the recent publication of Mockingjay (or maybe because of it), I remained wary of the series and only ordered Book I when it found its way to numerous Best Of lists. I'm glad that I did.
The plot of The Hunger Games is nothing very new or unique – a reality show where teenage contestants fight to death and/or the one who survives the longest wins. I was introduced to the concept in Stephen's King The Long Walk and it intrigued me even then, so naturally, the main plot of The Hunger Games appealed to me despite its similarities to The Long Walk*.
What came as a real surprise, though, was that The Hunger Games was incredibly exciting. Saying that a story is 'gripping' sounds like a major cliché, but it's true; I've read it in one sitting and I loved (almost) every bit of it. I can't remember when I've last read a book with this much suspense and a story so vivid. Collins constructs a very interesting post-apocalyptic world which actually works and doesn't feel too fake or too rigid. Of course, there are questions that go unanswered, especially regarding the economy of Panem, but the reader's attention is gently redirected to the central part of the story – the games – so the reader quickly stops dwelling on other things and becomes immersed in the action..
Katniss is a very likeable character and I was glad to see that, for once, the protagonist of a YA novel is not the archetypal troubled teenager. Sure, Katniss is troubled by some typical teenage problems, and can, at times, be a bit of a Mary-Sue: she has no serious character flaws as far as I've managed to discern, she is pretty, an amazing archer and a capable hunter, brave and caring … The situations she finds herself in, however, make her concentrate on survival and other tasks at hand instead of herself. It also helps that Collins plays the reader incredibly well – one can never be really sure who exactly is and who isn't Katniss friend in the arena at most times.
Speaking of the arena – I half-hoped that there would be some kind of a twist that would show the reader how Katniss' point of view isn't always 100% accurate. There were some passages where Katniss admits to forgetting how many contestants remain in the arena; I hoped that the author would take advantage of Katniss' and reader's confusion to add to the suspense by surprising us with a character we completely forgot about. Sadly, this was not the case; for better or worse, Collins keeps track of all contestants who matter and Katniss never misjudges a situation severely.
Although I practically devoured The Hunger Games, there were still some things that bothered me. I already mentioned most of them, but the one that bothered me most of all was the slight shift of attention from the Games to the love-triangle-in-the-making in the last third of the book. I mean, really? Why does every YA series need one of those? I honestly can't remember me or any of my friends being in that kind of a dilemma when we were teenagers, but in the world of YA series, it seems like a really common thing. Luckily for the reader, Katniss doesn't pay it much thought, but still – the ending is not very promising in that aspect. I'm also not sure whether I like the whole 'rebellious youth' thing; it feels just a bit too generic, even though it's actually logical here, as Katniss lives in a very oppressive world. I just hope that The Hunger Games won't turn out to be one of those YA series which has an empty husk of a protagonist who seems to have all the typical teenage problems combined plus the problem of saving the world/his family/his life.
Despite these flaws (which are, I think, typical for YA genre in general, not just for this novel), The Hunger Games is an incredibly exciting read, filled with action and suspense. I just hope that the sequels stay focused on things other than teenage romance.
* I watched Battle Royale in the week between writing and posting this review. What can I say? Some of the things are exactly the same (danger zones, young couple, etc.), but the atmosphere is completely different. In any case, Battle Royale is a great film, but I must admit it made me value Hunger Games a bit less.
By the way, if you want to read a really detailed analysis of The Hunger Games, check out this blog. I admit I barely noticed most of the things she mentioned, probably because I read the whole book in one big bite.
Saturday, May 28, 2011