Friday, November 20, 2009
Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games is one of those books that I was very reluctant to read because it seemed so trendy. Everyone I knew, practically, was reading it, which left me feeling resistant to go with the flow. I felt the same way about the Harry Potter novels, the Percy Jackson books, and the Terry Brooks Shannara series (about a decade after they first started coming out). Also, I'd heard it ended on a cliffhanger, which made me hesitate to read it until I could see a sequel in print. Well, the sequel, Catching Fire, is out. And more good reviews from friends and acquaintances pour in.
Hunger Games is a straight dystopia with a very slight hint of post-apocalyptia (the dystopia is a result of the catastrophic civil war). Katniss Everdeen is sixteen years old and yet is the breadwinner for her struggling family: her widowed mother and younger sister, Prim. They live in the poorest district (twelve) in an empire ruled by the Capitol. In their district, people struggle to have enough food and shelter to live to see another day. Their main industry is mining, and so the coal miners and their families have very low quality of life. The Capitol government, after a rebellion from the districts more than seventy years ago, started an annual event to remind the districts of their subjugation: the Hunger Games. A boy and girl "tribute" are chosen by lottery from each district to represent their district in an arena fight to the death. The tribute drawing in District Twelve will change Katniss's life forever.
This novel is thoroughly enjoyable and is accessible to a wide audience, from middle-grade readers to adults. There are some darker themes and imagery that merit parent-children discussion for any youth reading it, but overall it crosses many audience borders.
The writing is very minimalist, clipping along at a good pace without overkill on character, scenery, or other narrative description. This is part of Suzanne Collins's talent: pacing her story to keep the reader constantly engaged and interested. She knows when to throw the next foil or twist in the plot, keeping the characters continually engaged in struggles that define them (thus describing them by their actions more than their words, thoughts, or narrator thoughts). Collins writes in first-person present, which is a risky POV. She pulls it off splendidly, and only occasionally is it a little jarring.
Thematically, Collins portrays the despotic government as a Roman Empire castoff, using such names as Cinna, Portia, and other imperial-themed monikers. This, I expect, she does to further immerse in the sense of a Roman arena fight and all the decadence and fall of morality associated with the corruption of the Roman Empire and its leaders. She marries these motifs very successfully (and believably) with the traces of the former U.S. government (as we know it). Just walking through Washington DC can quickly convey how much we are a New World Rome, and Collins gets that across--very subtly, to be sure.
The Hunger Games is an exceptional story, and I'd recommend it to just about everyone. It's a fast read, and, as mentioned earlier, has impeccable pacing that dismisses any pause or boredom.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. 2008. Scholastic. 374 pp. $11.69 (HC).