Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (Scholastic Press, 2008)
Okay, so, yeah. I guess I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And honestly, when it comes to YA series with fuss these days, I pretty much expect to be disappointed, as they range from the mediocre (Harry Potter) to the downright awful (Twilight). So in that respect, I have to admit I was kind of pleasantly surprised by The Hunger Games, the first book of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy about Katniss Everdeen’s adventures in some sort of post-war society (we’re not given details about what happened to the world in this first novel). On the other hand, it’s kind of Battle Royale lite, and given what a fan I am of Takami Koushun’s novel, I was kind of disappointed in that regard. That said, there are a lot of pretty durned good books that are based on other books (Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, of course, is a direct descendant of King Lear, for example), so I’m not going to ding it too hard for that, despite Collins’ insistence that she was entirely unaware of Koushun’s novel (or the smash-hit cult film based on it).
Plot: Katniss Everdeen is sixteen years old, living on the fringes of District 12 in the continent of Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America (District 12 corresponds in modern geography to the Appalachians; basically, Katniss is from Kentucky/West Virginia/somewhere in there). She and her best friend spend their days slipping the fences that separate the “civilized” parts of society from the wilds, hunting the beasts that the fences are designed to keep out, and selling the meat on the black market. Despite the illegality of her way of making a living and the stigma attached to her family since her mother, once a noted herbalist, went insane following the death of her husband, Katniss is a popular figure in District 12. The year’s selection contest for the Hunger Games is coming up, and this is the last year Katniss is eligible; one more year and she can breathe a sigh of relief. On the other hand, her sister Primrose is old enough to be eligible for the first time…and when the selection comes around, inevitably, Primrose is chosen. Katniss steps up in her place and joins Peeta Malark, the son of the local baker, as the tribute from District 12.
Then come the games themselves, and if you’ve read Battle Royale or any of the other pieces of literature that pursue this same line of thinking, you know what’s going to happen: everyone gets tossed into an arena, and everyone fights until there’s only one person left. It’s an inherently interesting concept, as long as the author is capable of building solid, three-dimensional minor characters. Collins is, though perhaps she’s not as good as Koushun (and this, by the by, is where the film adaptation of Battle Royale fails; we lack a sense of many of the minor competitors). But we get to know Katniss and Peeta’s opponents without the team ever conversing with them, through Katniss’ keen sense of observation; she finds unexpected allies in interesting places, expected enemies in even more interesting places, and comes to realize that she’s not the only cunning contestant to be found on the grounds. Overall, we’ve got a bunch of interesting characters in an interesting situation, well-written enough to keep the suspense ratcheted up without the whole b ook deflating when we pause briefly once in a while to advance the are-they-or-aren’t-they? romance subplot between Katniss and Peeta (unfortunately the book’s weak spot; it advances rigorously along old-Harlequin-formula-romance-novel lines).
While writing this review, I’ve actually talked myself into revising my initial rating upwards a bit; I realized some stuff about it I didn’t while I was originally reading the novel. It’s a nifty little thing, perhaps not as deserving of the incredible amount of hype as it could have been, but certainly not a disappointment in most ways. It’s good enough to make me look forward to reading the other two novels in the trilogy. ***