30 April 2012

Book review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I love dystopic fiction. I've always found stories about societal breakdown and how people cope with it fascinating, not least because they reflect the failings of modern society, magnified to an extreme.

The former United States, years after an unspecified disaster, likely some combination of war and rising oceans, is known as Panem. The Capitol (in former Colorado) controls twelve districts, each with a specific product: technology, textiles, food, fish, etc. District Twelve, where the story begins, produces coal.

Seventy-four years before this story, the districts, then numbering thirteen, rose up against the Capitol to fight their oppressive hand. The Capitol won, obliterating District Thirteen, and continued to oppress the districts. They added a punishment in the Treaty of the Treason: every year, one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 inclusive, from each district are selected in a Reaping as Tributes to fight in a battle to the death: the Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen (16), the narrator, lost her father in a mining disaster, and since then, she's been hunting (illegally) to help feed her mother and sister. She's hard and determined, and she's willing to sacrifice everything to protect her 12-year-old sister Primrose. Her best friend, Gale, an older boy who lost his father in the same mining accident, goes hunting with her.

The day of the Reaping, Prim's name is pulled from the fishbowl. Katniss volunteers to go in her place: that's legal in the Games' rules. Her co-Tribute, baker's son Peeta Mellark, joins her on stage, and she remembers him as the boy with the bread: he tossed her a loaf of bread when she was starving.

They go to the Capitol, where they're prepared for the Games, fed and bathed and cleaned and trained. They're interviewed on TV to try to get sponsors interested in them. Sponsors can send them gifts during the Games, like food or medicine or weapons, and the more sponsors a Tribute has, the greater chance they have of survival.

Katniss is determined to win the Games, because she'll be able to take care of Prim. (A Games Victor receives extra food and money for life.) Peeta, in a conversation the night before the Games, says he doesn't want the Capitol to change him in the Games, and if he's going to die, he'll do it on his own terms, as himself.

Katniss' slow rebellion of the mind begins there, and it continues throughout the Games, as she plays the role she thinks will draw more Sponsors then, over time, comes to understand what Peeta meant. I wish I could go into further detail, but that would be too many spoilers.

The Hunger Games trilogy is dark, brutal, heart-rending, and, ultimately, hopeful. It's a compelling read, as Katniss, a survivor, does her best to survive in the Games, then cope with her PTSD in the second and third books as the world she's known her whole life changes around her.

On top of Katniss' story, Collins paints a target on reality-show culture and the massive divide between haves and have-nots. The movie version does a brilliant job of the reality-show aspect and questioning our own complicity in the Games.

I highly recommend both.

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