Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is the latest in a line (starting with Harry Potter and detouring through Twilight) of Young Adult sensations that have crossed over to adult readers and grabbed massive sales as a result. It’s tempting to use this phenomenon as an excuse to make catty remarks about adult literacy (and maybe throw in a Fahrenheit 451 reference), but I actually really like Harry Potter, and I enjoyed this trilogy as well. I read it for a book club meeting that I never made it to, but I ended up hoping that this final volume would garner a Hugo nom.
The series takes place in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian Panem (shortened “Pan-America”). In this fascistic state, a central capitol dominates twelve poor, hard-laboring districts. In retribution for a past revolution, and to symbolize the capitol’s dominance, two children are drafted from each district every year to take part in a deadly reality show with only one survivor. Twenty-four kids fight to the death, while tv audiences cheer.
In Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl in District 12 who developed survival skills after the death of her mother. She joins the Hunger Games to protect her sister and becomes outraged by what she witnesses in the capitol and in the games themselves. Collins doesn’t pull many punches in her portrayal of the fights, and this book is very dark and very violent, especially for YA fiction. There are some interesting sf ideas here besides the dystopian setting. We get high speed trains, hovercraft, and all sorts of high-tech weapons, including some genetically modified, weaponized organisms. There are obvious similarities to the Japanese novel/film/manga Battle Royale, but it does still feel pretty original, especially with the additions of the sequels.
I have to spoil something fairly obvious about the ending of this book to continue with the review, so stop here if you’re an absolutist about living spoiler-free.
So, yes, the existence of a trilogy should make this obvious, but Katniss survives the first book. In Mockingjay, the final volume of the trilogy, Katniss now finds herself the leader of a rebellion against the capitol. She, and other Hunger Games survivors, use their celebrity status as a weapon against the media-obsessed society of Panem. In an excellent, and very mature, twist, we see here that the revolution can be just as bad, just as manipulative, callous and violent, as the Capitol. It’s a great concept. It’s dark and pessimistic, and it’s a more nuanced version of the rebellious tendencies that often pop up in YA fiction.
The pacing of the trilogy as a whole does have some problems. I actually liked the first novel the best, because of its quick pace and self-contained structure. The final book spends a lot of time hammering on the flaws of the revolution, and speeds through the climax and denouement at the end. The middle volume, Catching Fire, I found especially weak – it mostly reiterates the first novel while laying some groundwork for the third, and it gets stuck in the obligatory love triangle. I like romantic subplots; I think they’re too rare in sf novels, but these books push hard for the lusty heights of Twilight, and I didn’t find that aspect convincing, or interesting, in any way.
There are also a few other clear signs that this is YA, despite the politics and slaughter. The world is very small-feeling. This novel sprawls over an America-spanning empire, but everyone seems to know each other. You get the feeling that the population has been reduced to the tens of thousands, which is hard to buy; it's a continent-spanning empire of one city and twelve small towns. The world-building could have used a bit more thought. The prose is solid, but it is constrained by the intended audience. There are some great cultural details though. I would recommend this series, which is darker, and more thrilling, than a lot of adult fiction out there. Also, as I mentioned in my Hugo prediction post, I think it's very interesting that WorldCon nominators passed this by just two years after nominating three YA novels.