Tag: near future

Book Review: Mockingjay

The Hunger Games have concluded, and the winner is…

Courtesy Scholastic Books

It can be difficult to limit yourself to a certain length for a narrative. If you can manage it, however, you allow yourself to do two things. Being limited in time pushes you to develop your world and characters as much as possible with as few words as possible. It also gives you the opportunity to go absolutely ape with the last installment in the story. Will the darkness of the second part of a trilogy give way to the light at the end, or does the story deliver on promises of doom and gloom? I won’t enter spoiler territory, but rest assured that Mockingjay delivers the goods.

Panem is in chaos. As the story opens, Districts are in open revolt against the decadent Capitol. The rebels are based in the underground stronghold of District 13, long thought eradicated by Capitol forces. As the story opens, however, the Districts are fractured and divided. They need something to unite them against their oppressor, a symbol of defiance and liberty – someone like Katniss Everdeen. All District 13 has to do is convince a traumatized, malnourished and battered young woman to be their Mockingjay. It’s something she has no interest in whatsoever.

One thing that has distinguished the Hunger Games trilogy is the evolution or, perhaps more accurately, breakdown of Katniss. Her motivations and drive for putting herself through hell never seem contrived or unwarranted, even if they are occasionally foolish or headstrong. She’s brave without being arrogant, brash without being annoying and vulnerable without being weak. She’s everything a protagonist in their late teens really should be. Her doubts, hopes, dreams and nightmares feel very authentic and adds a great layer of grounding to the entire narrative.

Mockingjay also gives us more information on the future nation of Panem. It’s made pretty clear on what basis the nation was founded. Panem is derived from the Latin term ‘panem et circenses’ – bread & circuses. With the bulk of the population working in misery, if not oppression, for the benefit of a tiny percentage of upper-class citizens who remain ignorant of the plight of the majority due to their decadence and the machinations of the leadership… well, I’m sure no parallels can be drawn to our current day and age whatsoever.

You may notice I’ve mentioned very little about the plot. I honestly don’t want to spoil anything for you. But trust me when I say that this is a far more shining example of poignant, powerful and timely young adult fiction than many of the entries currently available and popular. The entire trilogy has a very immediate feel to it, a compelling atmosphere that will have you eschewing other things and distractions because it means putting these books down.

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay are all highly recommended. It is my hope that, with this source material, the major motion picture captures the truth of the characters and setting and shows young women a true role model for their age. I plan on being there to find out.

Book Review: Catching Fire

Follow-up to my review of Suzanne Collins’ first book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

Courtesy Scholastic Books

They say the second chapter of a trilogy is its darkest. The stakes are heightened, the danger deepened, families torn apart and friends forced to make deadly and dire choices. For examples of this, look to The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Dark Knight, Mass Effect 2 and now, Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire. It builds on the momentum established in The Hunger Games and draws the reader into the dangerous, hauntingly familiar and all too possible nation of Panem.

Katniss Everdeen, victor of the last Hunger Games, should be able to retire to a peaceful life in her home district, where her winnings and fame can feed the coal miners and families she grew up supporting through illegal hunting. However, her actions during the Games have had unforeseen consequences. Katniss, the girl on fire, has sparked something in the hearts of her fans all over Panem, and the smoldering dissent they feel is fanning into the full-on inferno of revolution. President Snow’s wish is for Katniss to downplay this if she can, to play the Capitol’s games once again. And if she fails, it’s not just Katniss’ life that will suffer or even end – it’s the lives of everyone and everything she loves.

Catching Fire does two things that the middle chapters of a trilogy can and should always do: expand the world and deepen the characters. We see more of Panem as Katniss takes her Victory Tour around the country, and characters who were given sketches of interesting pasts are more fully realized, like Haymitch and Katniss’ mother. I hesitate to mention other characters for fear of spoiling the myriad twists and turns the plot takes almost from the very beginning.

Even moreso than The Hunger Games, this book seems nearly impossible to put down. It seems like every few pages, there’s another surprise awaiting Katniss, something that upsets her momentum or throws her into flickers of doubt and despair. Yet this never becomes repetitive or exhausting. The pace is so meticulous and the timing so precise that as much as the events are artificially created by Collins as the author and the rulers of Panem in the story, the flow is natural and always exciting. And just when you think things are going to get better…

Well, read the book, and find out.

Catching Fire does fall a bit into the trap of some trilogy middle chapters in that it occasionally feels like a stopgap between the opening that drew us in and a conclusion that promises to rock our world. However, for the most part, Collins’ sense of pacing and character overwhelm any feelings we may have that the plot is not advancing. The focus remains on the characters, not the events, and those characters are as brilliant as ever.

I recommend this book as highly as I did The Hunger Games. It’s made me eager to read Mockingjay to find out what happens next, and if heading into my local library as quickly as possible to make that discovery isn’t an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

Book Review: The Hunger Games

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.

Courtesy Scholastic Books
“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.

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