I know that I spend most of my time here talking about movies and television shows, but I am an equally voracious reader. I’ve gone months without picking up a book before (usually when I’m working on writing my own stuff), but inevitably I’ll hit a two-week period where I read anything and everything I can get my hands on. It’s not unheard of for me to go through 5-6 books in a week, and if I really like an author, I will hunt down everything they’ve written and read it. (Right now, Brandon Sanderson is my new favorite, and the only book of his I haven’t read is The Way of Kings. Because, dear God, man, 1250 pages? Really? You couldn’t break that up a little?)
The most recent series I just finished was The Hunger Games, and by “just finished,” I mean I just put down the third book earlier this afternoon. After reading pretty much all day. Because seriously, it’s good.
The trilogy — The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay — are dystopian YA (young adult) novels, set sometime in the future when America has fallen and been replaced by Panem, a country made up of 13 districts and one Capitol, from which the President rules with an iron fist.
Seventy-four years before the events of the first book, District 13 was bombed off the map during a violent rebellion, and every year since, the Capitol has hosted the Hunger Games to remind the districts where the power really lies. Each year, 24 children between the ages of 12 and 18 — one boy and one girl from each district — are drawn from a lottery to be a “tribute” in the Games. The tributes are thrown into an arena to murder each other until just one is left standing, an entertainment that is broadcast around the entire country of Panem.
Yeah, these books are just filled with sunshine and roses, I tell ya.
Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old protagonist, lives the Seam, the poorest part of District 12, the poorest district in the country. For five years, she’s been the main provider for her family, ever since her father was killed in a mine explosion.
On the day of the reaping, when the tributes are chosen, she volunteers to go to the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister, Prim, whose name is drawn. And thus what begins as a fight for survival ultimately morphs into a violent fight against the Capitol, with Katniss at the forefront.
One of the major reasons that these books are so successful is because way they’re written. Unlike most novels, these books are in first person and told in present tense, which brings in a sense of immediacy that draws you in and keeps you in suspense. You’re right there with Katniss as she’s hunting, sneaking, trying to find a way to survive the deadly traps that the Capitol throws at her at every turn. The present tense took a few pages for me to get used to, but once I did, I was hooked.
In addition to the immediacy of the viewpoint, you’re in the mind of a strong, likable character in Katniss. She’s practical, logical, cautious, and smart. She’s always looking for angles, for the motives behind actions. She is very much a survivor — breaking the laws of District 12 to hunt in the woods outside the fence, which is how she manages to keep her family alive. As an excellent hunter and archer, she has the skills to keep herself a contender in the arena.
However, being so practical means that she’s completely at a loss when it comes to romance and to her own feelings, which are torn between two boys: Gale, her best friend and fellow hunter, and Peeta, her fellow District 12 tribute in the Hunger Games. She cares for both of them deeply, to the point that she will fight to the death to protect them. But the love triangle persists throughout the novels, as Katniss doesn’t really know her own heart — and neither do we.
Being so tightly in her mind (and I must give credit to author Suzanne Collins — the woman does not break viewpoint) makes for some excellent tension, but also for some very interesting moments when Katniss is hallucinating or knocked out or incapacitated in other ways. For the most part, this works, but there are a few times in the last book where it starts to feel just a bit like a cop-out. You get to a good part, but then something happens to Katniss, and you pick up a few days later when she’s semi-coherent again.
Although Katniss is a great character, the rest of the cast is equally memorable. There’s Haymitch, the only District 12 tribute to win the Hunger Games, and thus the only mentor for Katniss and Peeta. He’s a grumpy man who’s spent the past few decades burying his memories of the arena in a bottle of liquor, but he and Katniss have quite a bit in common. There’s Rue, the female tribute from District 11, who reminds Katniss so much of her sister. And there is Cinna, Katniss’s stylist and friend, whose brilliant designs help her out during the Games.
On the really plus side, Collins is not afraid to hurt, handicap, and kill her characters. People you like are brutally tortured and killed. Some lose limbs. Others lose their minds. Over the course of the novels, Katniss herself is poisoned, shot, blown up and whipped. And she does not escape unscathed mentally, either — she has severe PTSD, which includes terrible nightmares that plague her throughout the books. Each of the deaths, you feel almost as keenly as she does.
Of course, a series like this is only as good as its villain, and that villain is President Snow. Although the Games themselves are more of the antagonist in the first book, Snow steps to the forefront in the second.
I bought Catching Fire based solely on the second chapter, where Katniss sees him for the first time after the end of the Games. For the next two books, even when he’s not on-screen, Snow is hovering around Katniss, like the overpowering scent of the roses he wears. He is cold, calculating, ruthless, and frightening. Katniss, who fears very little, fears President Snow.
The big reason I picked up these books is because of the forthcoming movie, which is scheduled for 2012. And if the movie manages to be even half as good as the book, it will be well worth watching in theaters at least once, if not multiple times.
Are these happy books? Not even close. If you want something like that, I have a list of cozy mysteries, comedies, and romance novels that you will enjoy immensely. But if you want a gripping novel with a phenomenal protagonist, a tense survival story, and a good ending, start reading The Hunger Games and don’t stop till you finish Mockingjay. You won’t regret it.
Disclaimer: Yes, I own two of these books. I borrowed the third from a friend. Yes, those links go to Amazon. No, they are not affiliate links. No, I did not get paid to write this review. Yes, I still think you should read these books immediately. I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts.