BOTTOM LINE: An original, absorbing fantasy-thriller series that readers of all ages will have a difficult time putting down.
After I finished reading the last Harry Potter book, I buried the reader in me. I subconsciously told myself I would never love another series again, at least not on the level I loved Harry Potter.
Now that I’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy, I can happily say I was wrong.
There’s so much to say about the books, but no amount of words on my part can do Suzanne Collins’ masterpiece justice. The series is marketed as teen fantasy, but I honestly don’t think anyone under 16 will truly appreciate all the layers in the story. It’s more than a commentary on government — it’s a stark (and when I say stark, I mean no-happy-ending-can-ever-repair-my-soul stark) look at the horrors of war and the devastation they leave behind. And with such a rich world and cast of characters, it’s hard to resist being drawn in.
The story, set somewhere in the distant future, follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives with her mother and younger sister, Prim. Katniss is a tough, feisty little thing. When her father died in a mining accident, she had to support her starving family. She learned to hunt in the forbidden woods near their town under the guidance of her best friend Gale, and as a result, she’s an extremely talented archer.
Katniss and her family live in District 12, which is part of Panem, a country composed of the Capitol (where all the rich people live) and eleven other districts. Each district specializes in a certain trade — District 12 is coal mining — and suffers from some degree of poverty and neglect. Part of this is because a long time ago, all of the districts came together to rebel against the Capitol. As part of their punishment, when the Capitol finally suppressed them, the Capitol now has a number of measures in place to make sure the district inhabitants always know who’s boss.
The most extreme of these measures is the Hunger Games. Every year, each district is required to randomly draw one female and one male between the ages of 12 and 18 to send to an elaborate arena in the Capitol, where they’ll fight and kill each other to stay alive, while the Capitol’s residents watch them on TV. Only one person can win.
This year, Prim is drawn as District 12’s “tribute.” Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and the other District 12 tribute, Peeta, are sent to the Capitol to be made over by stylists and trained by their mentor, former District 12 victor Haymitch (who’s now become a drunkard). But things get complicated when, during an interview, Peeta reveals that he’s always been in love with Katniss, branding him and Katniss as star-crossed lovers torn apart by the games.
***** PLOT SPOILERS BELOW ***** (highlight to read)
Katniss initially thinks Peeta lied to gain the audience’s favor. Halfway through the games, the Gamemakers announce that the rules have been changed: now, if both tributes from one district are the last ones standing, they can both live. Katniss and Peeta team up in the arena and kill off the other tributes — but instead of being declared the winners, the Gamemakers switch back to the old rules at the last minute. However, Katniss refuses to play along, and they both threaten to kill themselves with poisonous berries. No winners is even more humiliating than two winners, so the Gamemakers allow both of them to live.
It doesn’t end there, though. Now that Katniss has openly defied and embarrassed the Capitol, she becomes the target of their schemes. They threaten to kill her family and Gale if she doesn’t keep pretending to be desperately in love with Peeta. Although she tries, she eventually finds out her act of defiance sparked a series of uprisings in the other districts. The Capitol’s real goal is to prevent Katniss from fanning the fire. For the 75th annual Hunger Games, they do something special: they choose from the pool of past victors in an attempt to show district citizens that even the seemingly unbeatable can be defeated. Since Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch are the only victors of District 12, Katniss and Peeta go back into the arena.
After these Hunger Games, things get even more complicated. Midway through the games, Katniss is rescued from the arena by a hovercraft that belongs to rebels that have been plotting to overthrow the Capitol in District 13, an area the Capitol claims it destroyed in the first war. Now Katniss is forced to become the voice of the rebellion, while Peeta, who was captured by the Capitol, is tortured and used against her. In the end, the two forces clash in an all-out war, and neither side escapes unbruised.
***** END SPOILERS *****
Two things jumped out at me while I was reading the Hunger Games. First, Collins is one of the most imaginative writers I’ve ever encountered. Technically, she’s not amazing — her writing style is simple, at times overembellished, and definitely meant for children’s books. Romance and mundane, day-to-day events are her weaknesses, so don’t expect too much in the first few pages of the first and third books. The love triangle at the heart of the story is engaging (mostly because you’re invested in the characters), but poorly developed. The intimacy of the relationships stalls at chaste kisses, and you’re left wondering what exactly the characters are willing to die for.
However, the writing comes alive when the fighting starts. I’d go so far as to say Collins rivals JK Rowling in originality when her characters are in life-or-death situations. The Hunger Game arenas are genius, with a seemingly endless stream of unimaginable horrors lying in wait for the tributes. Muttations, tracker jackers, jabberjays… these are all little details of the dark world Katniss lives in that come alive when the pace picks up. Red herrings are integrated seamlessly into the action, and you’re constantly holding your breath, wondering what’s going to happen next. How will Katniss solve her current predicament? Who’s going to die next, and how? Is Peeta really on Katniss’ side, or is he working against her?
Collins’ ability to hold back just enough information to maintain suspense without confusing readers is by far her greatest strength. Loyalties are constantly in doubt, the twists are never expected, and there are several points in all three books when you think it’s over for the protagonists, only for them to pull together at the very last second to survive. Well… some of them, at least.
Speaking of surviving, the other thing I love about the books is that Collins isn’t afraid to go where she goes. Like I said before, the Hunger Games is marketed as a children’s series, but it’s much, much darker than your average Tamora Pierce novel. Darker than Deathly Hallows, even. I honestly don’t know if I’d let my own children read this book. The torture and violence had me queasy at times (expect flesh-melting rays of light, carnivorous monkeys, blood rain, and exploding children). Even more disturbing are her antagonists’ psychological states. Just when you think they couldn’t get any more twisted, they take their measures of torture up to a level that would make the Devil nauseous.
However, Collins’ sadistic side shines the brightest when it comes to killing off characters without mercy. She doesn’t care how her fanbase feels — she’s a woman on a mission to finish her story the way it needs to end. She will give a character a beautiful wife and child, make him selfless, smart, funny, and brave, and then decapitate him. Honestly, at some parts, I thought she went too far with the character deaths. There were a few characters that definitely could have stayed alive. One of the deaths in the third book in particular (I won’t say which one, but let’s just say he was my favourite character) was unnecessarily cruel. It shocked me to the point where I had to leave the story for a few moments to gather myself. I don’t know how children will be able to read it without having nightmares.
The Hunger Games is one of those book series you’ll think about for a long time after you finish the last page. The ending, while not unhappy, will shatter souls and crush hope — but the journey will be worth it. Collins has created a believable, one-of-a-kind world that would be worth diving into even if Katniss’ story didn’t fill it. My only regret is not being able to spend more time in it (why did I have to devour the books so fast!?).