Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Okay, so I read this trilogy over Christmas, so it's not quite part of the 'read all the unread books on my bookshelf' thing. But I thought they were super awesome - if you like post-apocalyptic socio-political YA novels, which I do - so here we go.

The Hunger Games

This series has three volumes - The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay - set in a future United States called Panem, which seems to have seen some kind of war or event that's wiped out a lot of the population. What remains is a single city, with thirteen surrounding Districts. The Districts are ruthlessly exploited by the Capitol, forced to produce food and goods while food in the Districts themselves is scarce.

Then there's the Hunger Games.

Once upon a time, apparently one of the Districts rebelled against the constant hunger and oppression. They were completely wiped out, the rebellion was quashed, and to remind the other Districts how much control the Capitol has over them, every year the Capitol selects two children under eighteen years old from each District - a total of twenty-four - and pits them against each other in a Battle Royale-style fight to the death. The winner is whoever outlives everyone else, and the winning child's District gets showered with food for the rest of the year.

It's massively sadistic, and our window into this world is Katniss Everdeen, a competitor in the latest Hunger Games. She's from an even-more-than-usually-disadvantaged District, which means she's up against kids who've had the time and resources to train and build strength. But she has some advantages; she's an excellent hunter, she's resourceful, she's definitely a survivor.

Her drive for survival leads her to behave pretty interestingly through the Games, especially when relating to the other competitor from her District, Peeta, a boy she develops some pretty strong feelings for. The relationship grows more and more complicated as the Games progress; as the trilogy progresses, actually. And yes, there's a love triangle - Peeta's competition is Gale, Katniss' trusted friend and hunting partner from back home in the District - but it's more solidly and interestingly built than usual, so I didn't object too much to such an over-used storyline.

For one thing, the relationships are embedded within a really complex set of circumstances. The Games and their aftermath are extremely politicised, and Katniss is thrown into a post-Games situation that she's not really prepared to deal with. Her society has been teetering on the brink of rebellion, as the oppression and exploitation experienced by most of the population finally threatens the hold the Capitol has, and the aftermath of her Games sets off a rebellion.

In different hands, this whole situation could have been either too simplified or too dragged-out, but the author has done an excellent job of illustrating a realistically complex world, where the divide between rich and poor is tangible, and the ways poverty, hunger, and even entertainment can be used to keep people under control are insidious and almost overwhelming. It's extremely interesting, and the complexity of it just makes it that much more interesting to read.

And that was one of the things I liked the most about these books, actually. Even though they're technically Young Adult, Collins isn't afraid to get socio-political in a serious, complicated and smart way. She doesn't assume her readers won't be interested in an exploration of the personal and cultural politics of oppression. She also doesn't mince words, and she doesn't treat her readers like they're too young to understand complex ideas. She's also not afraid to be ruthless and give them the hard word - that people are mean and tyrannical, that people you love can die, and that when the system is against you, just surviving can be really, really hard. And that sometimes all you can do is what's right instead of what's easy, no matter what the cost is.

And Katniss embodies this. She's an excellent character, too, in this age of Bella Swans*. She doesn't always know what's going on or how she feels about it, she makes bad decisions sometimes or gets the wrong idea about stuff, but she does things. She acts - she's not all that interested in romance so she's not just waiting around for some guy, and when there is a guy around, she refuses to sit on the sidelines and let him do all the work. Katniss is clever, she works hard, she gets hurt - hurt badly, sometimes, which is refreshingly realistic - and all of her reactions seem real, which is absolutely the mark of a well-written character.

The writing itself isn't mind-blowing, and Collins usually makes the obvious word choice without trying to be too interesting, but that's probably not actually a criticism. Her style is no-frills, which in itself is pretty effective as a way to make the story seem brutally realistic and make the horrifying things she bluntly describes all the scarier. She also seems to have put her efforts into the action rather than the language, with simple yet vivid descriptions of almost cinematic sequences. (Did I mention that there's going to be a movie?) And oh my god, the tension. I can't remember how many times she twisted the plot and raised the stakes high enough to make me flip the hell out, anxious to know what was going to happen.

Oh, and the best thing about these books? They're quality, all the way through. The second and third books don't suddenly get rubbish. The resolution is exactly the kind of thing you'd want; honest, real for the story, real for the characters, and for me, totally satisfying.

Final Verdict: Two very enthusiastic thumbs up.

Some interesting links:
Mark Reads the Hunger Games - a chapter by chapter review, although you might as well read the books themselves.
IMDB for the movie - I'm pretty interested to see how this goes, hope they don't screw it up.

*I can write a rant about Twilight, but it's probably best if I don't. Once I get started, it's hard to stop...

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