The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 374 pages
Genre: young adult – dystopian thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 5 stars

It has been a long, long time since I tore through a book as quickly and as avidly as I tore through this one. The word for The Hunger Games is, absolutely, “compelling.” This is a book that grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

The book takes place in a dystopian future — which gets me right there. I love a good dystopia. North America as we know it has fallen to pieces, thanks to what the heroine vaguely describes as “the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.” The civilization that replaces America is called Panem, a cluster of districts ruled by the Capitol. There were once Thirteen Districts; now, after a failed rebellion, there are only Twelve, with the Thirteenth having been obliterated in the war. As a reminder to the Districts of its power, and to prevent further rebellions, the Capitol holds the Hunger Games each year. Each District sends two tributes each year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18.

In coal-mining District 12 (probably situated in what was once West Virginia, based on the descriptions), Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister’s place when twelve-year-old Prim is chosen. The “reaping”, as the ceremony is grimly called, is a stark look at how the government can so easily manipulate poverty. A twelve-year-old has his or her name entered once, a thirteen-year-old twice, and so forth — but, you can also choose to enter your name more times in exchange for tesserae, allotments of grain and oil. This is a frequent occurrence in District 12, impoverished and struggling. Katniss has been her family’s provider since she was 11, when her father died in a mining accident and her mother slipped into a deep depression. She’s now sixteen, with her name put in 20 times; her friend Gale, with more siblings to support, has his name in 42 times. And yet it’s Prim, with her name only in once, because Katniss wouldn’t let her take on any more risk, who gets called.

And this is all just in the first few chapters.

Katniss goes to the Capitol to prepare for the games, along with Peeta, the male tribute from her District — a boy who once threw her bread when she was starving, near-death, before she learned to hunt and trap. They’re up against others like themselves, unwilling tributes who’ve never had a full belly in their lives, but they’re also up against tributes from wealthier Districts, where the Games are not a punishment but a chance for honor and glory, who’ve trained their whole lives for this moment. Katniss experiences the shock and confusion of being treated like a pampered pet even though she’s really a beast for slaughter, and through her eyes, we see the horrific, casual cruelty of a society that places enormous monetary value on her life but no spiritual or moral value on it whatsoever. Because the Hunger Games are entertainment, televised and trumpeted.It’s the Olympics as bloodsport. (It’s no surprise that everyone in the Capitol seems to have a Roman name — Flavius, Octavia, Cinna, Portia — because there’s certainly a smack of the Colosseum about the whole thing). The tributes have to compete not only against each other in the field, but also for sponsors, who can send them life-saving gifts during the Games — and the tributes who put in the best show during the opening ceremonies, training, and interviews. Katniss, both feisty and sullen, unable to conceal her resentment, is saved from making a total mess of things partially through her own audacity and partially through the machinations of the District 12 handlers, who manipulate circumstances so that Katniss and Peeta look like star-cross’d lovers. The burden for that is on Peeta (and for a long time Katniss isn’t sure if he really has feelings for her or if he’s just playing the game), but Katniss reaps some benefits of it, and eventually learns to work the angle herself.

The strength of this book is in the relentless way that Collins builds suspense. Even when Katniss is on something resembling “downtime”, healing from wounds, feeding herself, scoping out the lay of the land, it never feels as though the action slows down. There’s always another threat, always something else lurking on the horizon — and those things explode into action with magnificent force. The Games are a fascinating look at survivalism; the “Career Tributes” from the wealthy districts may know how to fight, but they don’t know how to hunt for food, find safe berries to eat, or bandage up their wounds. Eleven tributes are killed outright in the first battle, but from then on, it becomes a matter of playing advantages and covering for weaknesses. It’s gruesome, deeply troubling, heart-poundingly thrilling, and unexpectedly emotional. There was one moment that got to me, not because of who died or the way in which she did, but because of Katniss’s reaction to it — and the unexpected benefit that Katniss received afterwards. I don’t want to throw in a spoiler, but it’s a really poignant moment, and it made me tear up. And then it’s right back to breath-holding suspense.

So, this book is fantastic. Collins has created not only a fascinating dystopia, but also an eminently relatable heroine. I’m usually not a fan of first person narratives; they have to be done really well for me to like them. And this one is. Katniss’s voice is wonderful, practical and laced with sardonic humour, but you also get to hear her struggling with vulnerabilities she doesn’t want to admit to. She is not a perfect person, but she’s a tremendously engaging protagonist.

I know I’m late to the train, and I don’t know why. It wasn’t for lack of interest, I just somehow never got around to picking this book up. Probably no one actually needs my recommendation to read this book, as I suspect I was the last person in America not to have done so already. But if you do need it, here it is: Read this book. Immediately if not sooner. I’m off to get Catching Fire and Mockingjay right now, because I can’t stand not knowing what happens next.

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