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Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Title: Mockingjay
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.

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Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 391 pages
Genre: young adult – dystopian thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4+ stars
Spoilers: Armed and active for both this and The Hunger Games; I don’t know how to talk about this book without them, unfortunately.

The last time I felt this way about a series was starting Harry Potter, back almost a decade ago. Nothing else in recent memory has matched the sheer irresistibility of this series. I’m a little floored, honestly, by how much I’m taken with this series and how desperately I need to move on to find out what happens. But I thought it important to pause and capture my thoughts now.

Catching Fire ups the ante in a big way. It continues more or less seamlessly on from the end of The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta are expected to go on a Victory Tour around all of the Districts. The trouble is that unrest has been sizzling in some of them for a long time, and Katniss finds herself the inadvertent mascot of rebellion. No true uprisings have broken out yet, but you can feel them simmering, low-burning embers, all through this book. And that’s terrifying the living hell out of the Capitol. Enough so that the President himself feels compelled to visit Katniss and make a few well-placed threats against her family and friends.

This includes Gale, who was kind’a-sort’a Katniss’s boyfriend before she went to the Games, but who she’s had to treat as an amiable “cousin” ever since she got back, since her only thread of protection lies in being able to claim that love for Peeta made her act so defiantly. There’s a lot of emotional entanglement between the three of them, and I think it’s handled very well. It’s not overblown or made into the stuff of melodrama. Instead, all three act in the time-honoured manner of teenagers everwhere: with extreme awkwardness. They don’t know what to say to each other, how to act. And it doesn’t help that just as soon as poor Katniss is thinking she’s set her heart on one, the other will do something spectacular to sway her around again. And yet, all without turning her into just some pathetic chick.

Is it wrong of me to hope that Katniss will get to live polyamorously happy-ever-after with them both? Yes. Yes, it is. That would barely pass muster in fairly edgy adult fiction; it’s going to be another century or so before you could get away with that in young adult. What I then assume is that either Gale or Peeta has to die. So, then, is it wrong for me to hope that it’s Gale? Nothing against the guy at all, but he’s not the one we, the readers, have spent as much time with. My emotional investment lies far more in Peeta.

So. All of that’s going on, and then District Twelve has a really hard year. It’s partially to punish Katniss — law enforcement becomes really strict, the minor infractions (like hunting in the woods) that folk used to be able to get away with, they can’t anymore — and it’s partially just bad luck, from a really hard winter. Desperation’s sinking in, and even while Katniss feels the urge to rebel burning deep inside her… she can’t. Not with so many people relying on her. Not with so many innocent lives at stake.

And then the Capitol changes the rules on everyone again, and announces that for the 75th Hunger Games, they’ll be drawing only from a pool of prior victors — who are supposed to be exempt for life. The second half of the book deals with this. With no other female victor living, Katniss has to go for 12, and though their mentor Haymitch’s name is chosen, Peeta immediately volunteers to take his place. So they’re back, and have to quickly determine who among the other tribute-victors they might be able to trust at least long enough for a temporary alliance. The arena designed for the 75th Games is diabolical and utterly ingenious, and in some ways I wish they’d gotten to it earlier in the book in order to spend more time examining it.

Some other reviews I’ve seen charge that Catching Fire suffers from middle-of-trilogy syndrome and that it’s slow to get going, that too much time is spent on exposition in the beginning. I couldn’t disagree more. I think this book is superbly strong, and I don’t feel it has any of that lag. In fact, I sort of wish they’d spent more time on the Victory Tour, describing the various Districts — but that’s because I’m obsessed with world-building, especially in dystopias. I want to know everything. From what I can gather, District 4 is probably Gulf Coast (wherever the coastline actually is now), because their main industry is fishing. 3 seems like it might be Detroit-ish, as they focus on electronics and manufacturing. 7 seems like Wisconsin-Minnesota, timber country. 11 I can’t quite place, because it might be either the South or the Midwest. I’m guessing Midwest because the agriculture seems a bit more wheat-and-corn, though in Book 1 Rue does talk a lot about orchards — but also because, if part of the cataclysm leading to this world setup was rising waters, most of the agricultural south is probably under the Atlantic Ocean now. Anyway — I wish I knew more. I want to know about all the Districts, where they are, how many people, how they got to be the way they are. What we do learn along the way is that District 11 is much more strictly controlled than 12 has been, and that the people there seem to be getting sick of it.

So. This book is fabulous, the series is fabulous, I’m moving on to Mockingjay as fast as may be — and it looks like it’s going to have pretty much my favourite thing over. Not just a dystopia, but a dystopian rebellion. I am aquiver with excitement.

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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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