Saturday, March 26, 2011

"The Hunger Games" Parts 2 and 3 - Suzanne Collins

A nearly excellent book ... "Catching Fire" continues where "Hunger Games" left off. Without doubt, this is one of the most significant works of young people's fiction to have appeared in the last few years - with good characterisation, complex plot, moral depth, and enough of an interface with the real world ("Amusing ourselves to Death", literally) to stir discussion.

Personally, I didn't feel that this book was any weaker - it didn't suffer from "second book syndrome"; it has a good independent plot line. There are two parts in separate locations, but then, it is quite possible to divide even the Harry Potter books up into large almost separate chunks. There is an overarching narrative left hanging - but by the same token, it had its own plotline which did conclude.

That's not to say that I consider the book perfect. My quibbles are two-fold. Firstly, the issue that I had with the first book - too much cannon-fodder - hasn't changed. Too many people are introduced simply for the sake of being killed shortly afterwards. It wasn't quite as gory as "Hunger Games", and less time was spent building up our relationship with characters - but even so, I struggle with the sheer brutality of the book.

The other issue is that of suspension of disbelief. It irritates the socks off me when smug TV programmes show all the places where you can the film makers made a mistake and YOU CAN SEE that it's a film. I KNOW it's a film! But I come to see it because I want the film-makers and writer and cast to tell me a story. Similarly, I know that "Catching Fire" is only a story. But there are times when, despite the care that had gone into constructing the scenario, a part of me was just thinking - Naaaaah. It is this fact that, I think, means that Collins' books stand as young people's literature, when they came close to being literature with a dystopic vision in their own right.

However, I would still strongly recommend the book, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next in "Mockingjay".

Well, I must be the awkward one because in my opinion, this was the strongest of the "Hunger Games" trilogy. Having survived her own Hunger Games, and been snatched from the Quarter Quell, Katniss Everdeen finds herself being asked to become the figurehead for an uprising against the Capitol. But just how bad is the Capitol's rule? And is the alternative, offered by the head of the phantom District 13, much better?

This is a fine and subtle book, which has many resonances with issues that are live in our world - tyranny, media for entertainment, propaganda and news, the extent to which the end justifies the means - and this in itself makes it a good launchpad for discussion. On top of that, Katniss is not a simple, triumphant heroine. She is scarred as a result of the torment she has experienced at the hands of the system in the last two books. She is unable to choose between two boys who love her. The people around her are also complex - aspects of their characters which seemed almost by-the-by earlier in the series come to shape and define them, making clear their pathway in some surprising ways. People express dislike of the fact that as Katniss barely avoids total disintegration, we miss significant chunks of the story - but this is her story, not the account of the revolution. Like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (The Ender saga), one could easily imagine a further series spun off from this one, filling in some of the other people's stories, but in the mean time, I was more than happy from a narrative point of view to live through Katniss's despair.

What of the criticisms I had of the earlier books? Yes, there are still a large number of people who die - but they are no longer "cannon-fodder" - simply placed in the story to be wiped out. Most of the deaths that impact Katniss in this book are no longer "incidental" - they have weight. And the other criticism - that too much of a demand was being placed on me to suspend disbelief - I also feel doesn't hold for "Mockingjay" in the same way.

Personally, I feel that this is the book that makes the series.

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