Book Review: The Hunger Games

For a while now, I've had my eye on The Hunger Games, a sci-fi YA book by Suzanne Collins. Read some reviews that made it sound promising, but other books had jumped the queue until a few months ago, when I finally took the plunge. Still, it took a while to get to it, but it was definitely worth the wait.

It is the future, the US has become a dyspeptic dictatorship called Panem, divided into 12 territories circling out from The Capitol somewhere on the west coast. There was a rebellion, a failed one and a 13th territory is now never heard of (obliterated, perhaps?). To keep the populace in check, reminding them what happens when you rebel, each year, two children over the age of 12 from each territory are selected as tributes and sent into The Hunger Games. In arenas built in a large area of land, each year designed differently, sometimes forests and plains, sometimes a desert, once arctic, but that was no fun because everybody froze to death. And the "fun" of these Games is for everyone to watch - because watching is mandatory - the kids kill each other until only one is left. The winner gets luxury housing for the rest of their lives, money and food enough to feed themselves and their families and this can be very important, especially in the outer territories where poverty is rampant.

Katniss Everdeen lives in the 12th Territory (formerly known as the Appalachians), which supplies The Capitol with coal and is desperately poor. Before his death, Katniss’ father taught her to hunt and she’s been keeping her small family – mother and younger sister - alive. When the time come for the selection for the year’s Hunger Games, Katniss’ younger sister is selected and Karniss volunteers to take her place. Together with Peeta, the other tribute from the 12th Territory and Haymitch, a past winner from Territory 12 who is now forced to coach each year’s tributes, she goes to The Capitol for her makeover and to play in the Games. Once there, Katniss and Peeta are positioned as young, starcrossed lovers, a strategy that can help them in the game as the audience votes on who receives "favours", items that can help you survive in the Games.

Characterization is interesting in this book - Katniss is very focused on winning and calculating, constantly on top of strategy, which can seem cold, yet she is still very easy to like and to root for. Peeta represents the contestant who won't give up his humanity to win and together, they make an interesting pair. The Games themselves are brutal, the action nailbiting, making you think about just how much you're willing to consider entertainment. It also made me realize how many rules Collins breaks by making sacrificial tributes out of children and then - and I think I can say this without ruining anything - refusing to save even the most appealing of them. The Games continue ticking along the way they always do and tribute after tribute dies, some of them quite horribly, which contributes to the sense of shock. Because that just doesn't happen in art, be it film or literature - you don't kill children, certainly not this many, this up close and for quite this reason. It brings the cruelty of this world home to you, making you understand just how far this new society has come in its callousness and although you would like to think that it is very different from ours, there are enough parts of this that ring bells to make you think and cringe a little.

We've seen the plot before (The Running Man (Special Edition), for instance) and the boy-meets-girl idea has been put in some similarly extreme situations before, as well. Yet, the combination of plot, action and characterization had me gripped. I had such a hard time putting this one down and when I did, I spent a lot of time thinking about wanting to pick it back up again (which can be rather distracting while you're trying to work) The good news is that it was the first of a trilogy and I've already bought the second one, Catching Fire - the last book is scheduled to be published at the end of August, 2010. So far, I'm saving it for a special occasion with the anticipatory delight I normally reserve for a new Amelia Peabody mystery. I highly recommend you get this one as soon as possible, but get the regular book - the narrator of the audiobook had a tendency to get in the way of the story.

As I was thinking of writing this review, I realized that two of the best books I've read in the last six months or so have been in the YA genre. Shiver, for instance and now The Hunger Games. That's not to say that the other books I've read aren't good, but these two twisted the story in such a way that it seemed new and by their storytelling talent, both authors pull you into the story, making it real, immediate and compelling, in completely different ways and both are near the top of my favourites of the books I've read in the past year.