Author: Suzanne Collins
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 390 pages
Genre: young adult – dystopian thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active for entire series
This book was not at all what I expected. And I sort of love it for that.
I knew right from the start that it wouldn’t be, that I wasn’t getting Return of the Jedi. District 13 is about as far from a utopian paradise as you can get. It’s a complete military state, to the extent that each citizen’s schedule for the day is temporary-tattooed on their arms when they wake up. Everyone has a place and a responsibility, cogs in a machine. Practical, but creepy — and it clearly rubs Katniss the wrong way. Fortunately, since she’s still classified as “mentally disoriented”, she can get away with not following orders all the time, but it doesn’t take her long to start finding out just how far she can push her new allies. They want to use her as the Mockingjay to unite all of the Districts in rebellion against the Capitol, but they’re having some trouble stabilising her moods, not to mention dredging her out of despair about Peeta. She’s pissed as hell that the rebel operatives chose to save her and leave him behind, and when she finds out he’s not dead but captured, controlled by Snow, she’s naturally pretty concerned for his safety.
So, a lot of the book is Katniss adjusting to life in 13, pushing her limits, and trying to come to terms with having to live up to the image the public has of her. What does it mean to be the Mockingjay? How can she be that and stay true to herself?
There’s something really beautifully subversive in this book, and I don’t just mean about that reversal of expectations. On the surface, this book seems to be so unlike the first two. The situations are entirely different. The characters have changed, some to be nigh-unrecognisable. But the mechanics are gruesomely similar. Katniss is still stuck in the Hunger Games. Only they’re playing for keeps now. The Games were, of course, always deadly serious to the 24 combatants, and to an extent to people in the Districts, but they were still so choreographed, so thoughtfully executed. War isn’t, even when you try. There’s no hope of begging aid from on high, of getting sponsors, just for being impressive. In war, reinforcements and supplies come only when you’ve planned for them, not dropped as if by magic out of the sky. Critical differences — but critical similarities, too. Collins, brilliantly, doesn’t harp on this theme much — but she lets it shine in tiny details (details that I’m wondering if they would be as apparent if I hadn’t devoured all three books in under 48 hours). Like when, during the mission in the Capitol, Katniss tries to reckon up who they’ve lost, repeats the list to herself, just as she did her list of opponents during the Games, to keep track — only now it’s not to keep track of who’s still a threat, but to remember who they’ve lost. Similarly, the Capitol broadcasts those suspected still alive (even when some are already dead), which echoes the projections of dead tributes during the Games. And then there’s how Katniss still has to play for the cameras, still has to put on a good show, not to win sponsors, but to keep up the spirits of the rebels in the Districts. She’s still styled, throughout the book, both in 13 and on the road, still putting on a show. Still accompanied by a camera crew (a rather morbid commentary, I feel, on our current 24/7 news cycles). Even down to those damn silver parachutes at the end, even down to what ultimately happens with Prim, so many details of this book echo the Games and the first book, but in such brutal, sadistic, horrifying ways.
I also enjoy how this book subverts so many expectations. Katniss doesn’t turn into a 100% badass warrior chick. The love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale does not consume the story. The rebels are not necessarily the good guys. The story is not one of glory and triumph. It’s dark, definitely edgy, and occasionally hard to read. It’s a lot of psychological trauma for a young adult book to deal with, but I think Collins handles it pretty deftly. The subversion of the romance angle is particularly nice. Gale turns out to be just a little too violently inclined, a little too gung-ho about playing just as rough and mercilessly as the Capitol does. Katniss isn’t sure what to do about that, and she clearly struggles with what these revelations about Gale’s character, about the man he’s grown into, mean for any potential future between them. Meanwhile, Peeta has been brainwashed by the Capitol via a form of psychological poison. By the time the rebels retrieve him, he thinks Katniss is a genetically engineered abomination trying to kill them all, and he nearly strangles her. It’s a far cry from the contrived images of the happy couple they had to create earlier. Getting him back is a long, slow process, and with both Peeta and Katniss suffering some pretty severe PTSD, Collins isn’t shy about stating that neither one of them will ever come back completely. Part of them will always live in this dark world, in these terrifying circumstances. They will never be what they were before or who they were before. But that doesn’t mean they can’t salvage something out of the ashes. (Salvage is, incidentally, a pretty big although subtle theme throughout all three books).
There were some flaws. A couple of times the action jerked around so fast that I got a little lost and had to back-track to figure out just what had happened. A significant character’s death got sandwiched in a way that I nearly missed it entirely. And Katniss possibly spends just a little too much of the book out of it — either literally or psychologically. In some ways it’s effective, to display the effects all of this is having on her, but in some ways it’s just really frustrating to have your heroine and narrator continually knocked out of either consciousness or sanity.
This paragraph has an extra spoiler warning on it because it really is the granddaddy spoiler, since it’s about the ultimate endgame. So. Be ye warned.
I knew Katniss was going to have to kill Coin even before she knew it. Coin proved, so thoroughly, that she wasn’t any better than her opponent. Rule by 13 would have been no better than rule by the Capitol — just restricted in different ways. While the Capitol celebrates excess and indulgence, flinging human life away for entertainment value, 13 buckles everything down until there’s no room left to breathe. Individual life and choice don’t have any meaning there, either, but for completely different reasons. There, it’s all about serving the cause, being the well-functioning machine you’re meant to be. Each civilisation represents one end of the Evil Empire spectrum, but they’re both pretty horrific to consider.
What we come to learn is that, for District 13, this war was never about liberation, never about freeing the Districts from the yoke. President Snow was right about that — 13 could’ve helped them in the first rebellion, but instead they cut and ran. No, for District 13 and for Coin, this was about revenge and domination. She wanted her own empire to rule, larger and more satisfying than subterranean 13, and she didn’t care who she had to throw under the bus to get that. Individual life meant as little to her as to Snow; she would sacrifice whoever and whatever in order to win. With her out of the picture and someone saner at the wheel, there’s hope that Panem might yet turn into a functioning republic, as the District rebels hoped.
So. Overall, it’s hard to say I enjoyed this book, because so much of it was so painful. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t exquisite. Collins crafts a fantastic story in a complex world (a world that I’m sort of annoyed I still don’t know enough about, but that’s my own private obsession with dystopian world-building, there). Katniss is a remarkable heroine, who defies expectations at every turn — both of her handlers, her friends, and of the reader. She won’t be what anyone else wants her to be, and that includes us. I appreciate that. Collins has done something different, which is quite an achievement. I want more heroines like Katniss in the literary world.