On our final trip to the local Borders book store, my wife and I picked up a few things, such as Earth: The Book, which is every bit as hilarious as you can imagine, and the first collection of the Path of the Planeswalker mini-comics based on Magic: the Gathering. On something of a whim, I also picked up the first novel in a trilogy penned by Susanne Collins called The Hunger Games. As I’m aiming one of my novels squarely for the upper end of the young adult audience, I figured it would be good for me to know what I’m up against.
Finishing this book has convinced me I need to step up my game.
“May the odds be ever in your favor.”
The Hunger Games opens with a bleak picture of our future. After some North American catastrophe that is merely hinted at, we are introduced to the nation of Panem, a glimmering but austere Capitol surrounded by twelve specialized and somewhat downtrodden Districts. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, hails from the coal mining District 12, where she and her friend Gale must hunt in the forests (illegally) for food and supplies their families wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. At sixteen, Katniss has spent most of her adolescence signed up for the Hunger Games, where two children conscripted from each District fight to the death for the honor of bringing home wealth, food and prestige. When Katniss’ little sister’s name is drawn for this years Games, Katniss volunteers in her stead. What happens next goes far beyond the needs of Katniss’ family and opens up a greater world of danger, intrigue, romance and adventure.
Suzanne Collins clearly has a plan that extends beyond this book. As the first part of a trilogy, The Hunger Games must set up the characters, locations, events and themes to service the entire overall story. However, at no point does the book feel dry or overly expository. The perspective of Katniss both allows for the introduction of the necessary elements mentioned and keeps us firmly in the narrative of the story at hand. It’s a fantastic example of characterization and plotting woven together to create a coherent first act that manages to stand alone.
Speaking of characters, Collins also does a wonderful job fleshing out the people of Panem. Katniss as a heroine is at once strong and vulnerable, intelligent and naive. She feels, talks and reacts like a real person, with palpable confusion in some moments and grim resolution in others. Her fellow tribute from District 12, Peeta, shows a great deal of complexity as well, along with some of the adults involved and the tributes from other Districts. The entire enterprise from start to finish has all of the hallmarks of careful construction, not only creating this new world of a potential future but also giving readers a reason to care about it.
The sensationalism and spin doctoring of Panem surrounding the Hunger Games and the undercurrent of oppression and misery feels close to home. There are eerie similarities between the ways in which the Capitol interacts with its Districts and the rhetoric and attitude of certain elements in today’s world in general and the United States in particular. Between this similarity and the presentation of Katniss, Collins draws the reader in and refuses to let go, compelling each page to turn as the action unfolds. When the book is over, the readers is satisfied with the conclusion but left wanting more, which is exactly how any book should end, but especially when more are planned to come after it.
The Hunger Games is a wonderful book, deeply involving and a delight to read. And yet it’s only the first part of a greater narrative exercise. Subsequent books are poised to deliver more great characterization, a deeper exploration of the world of Panem, and more sleepless nights for the reader as they (that is, we) eagerly turn page after page. Good luck putting this one down.
If this is what the kids are reading these days, the work of aspiring novelists like myself has clearly been cut out for us.