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Saturday, October 16, 2010

cover of 'The Hunger Games'

It's a little hard to believe that this intense, violent story set in an oppressive, dystopic world was written for young adults, but now that I've read it I can understand why the series is so popular. The story is narrated by Katniss, a teenager who's provided for her family (mostly by illegal hunting) ever since her dad was killed in a mine explosion. They live in District 12, one of the poorest districts of the nation of Panem, in what used to be North America. Out west beyond the Rockies is the luxurious, wealthy Capitol city-- but the people of the districts are oppressed and kept poor even as they work for all the goods that supply the Capitol. As punishment for an old rebellion that left a thirteenth district completely destroyed and as a reminder of who has the power, every year each district must send two of their children-- a boy and a girl-- as "tributes" to participate in the Hunger Games, something like a reality TV show in a huge (but controlled) outdoor setting where the children must fight to the death. Katniss's little sister, Prim's (the only person Katniss is sure she loves) name is the one that is drawn-- so Katniss volunteers to take her place. Of course, that's only the beginning of what is quite an engaging, page-turning, compelling story.

Katniss is intelligent, cagey, a talented hunter with bow and arrow, and a survivor-- so she's very well suited to this competition in many ways, even though as a member of District 12 she's at quite a disadvantage. Her male counterpart is Peeta, a boy her own age she barely knows who once did her a great kindness at cost to himself. She immediately takes all of his attitudes and actions as a strategy for survival in the game; but Peeta is actually kind, and generous, and while he's clever and a decent fighter, he's more concerned about staying himself, and not letting the Capitol turn him into a monster before he dies.

The world of Panem seems so real, even through the many disturbing aspects of it-- the children are whisked away on a fancy train to the Capitol, lavished with heaps of fancy food, given teams of stylist to make them over into the latest styles of the Capitol, trained, and presented to the people via interviews and presentations. All of this is important to Katniss and Peeta because not only is there betting on the game, there are sponsors who can pay to provide goods to be delivered within the arena as the game goes on, and they must make enough of an impression to get those sponsors, because it may be key to their survival.

In his interview, Peeta declares to the world that he is in love with Katniss (although the language and the way it comes out feels very natural, like something a 16-year-old might say). She thinks that it is all a strategy Peeta and their mentor, Haymitch (one of only two Hunger Games winners from District 12 in 74 years), have cooked up and struggles with knowing how to react around Peeta since they will be enemies in the game. Once the are actually in the game, she first thinks Peeta has betrayed her; late in the game, when a new rule is announced that if a boy and girl from the same district are left, they can both win, Katniss finds a wounded Peeta and they team up to survive.

The game arena is pretty amazing, an almost understated vision of the power and technology of Panem. It's a huge place with a lake, a forest with animals for the contestants to hunt and live off the land, creeks and another section of grassy plains. And yet there are game runners somewhere pushing buttons and controlling everything-- starting a fire raging through a section of forest to drive the contestants together, controlling the temperature so it is brutally hot during the day but dangerously cold at night, even drying up the streams at the end to force the contestants together.

Even several days after finishing this book, I still find myself thinking about it. There are so many compelling, complicated characters. Haymitch, who seems like a drunk and a fool, is actually quite clever and does quite well steering Katniss and Peeta through this minefield of an experience, and even manages to communicate to Katniss through the timing and kind of gifts he sends down that were paid for by sponsors. (At one point, Katniss guesses that Haymitch may have retreated into drunkenness after enough years of mentoring children who go off to die; Katniss and Peeta discuss it near the end of their own game and figure out Haymitch must have won by outsmarting everyone else.) There is the talented and sympathetic stylist, Cinna, who actually requested to work with District 12, and brilliantly clothes them with fiery costumes that evoke the coal mining of their home, and who seems to really care for Katniss.

Katniss herself is a pretty amazing character. I suppose she would have to be to carry the book the way she does, but it works. She's a hunter, but not much of a killer in the game (although it's clear she could be)-- her only kills are indirect, or for others (taking out the boy who had just speared the young girl from District 11 she'd allied with, who reminded her of her sister Prim) or even, at the end, a kind of mercy (when the monsters sent by the game-runners mangle but do not kill an opponent). When she's working with Peeta in the game, it's clear she's starting to have feelings for him and believe he's not just playing this up as a strategy; but because she is so aware that she is part of a big show and that how she plays it could mean her life, she doesn't have time to think about how she really feels, and is forced to play things up in a way she might not otherwise do.

This is a true page-turner. I hardly put the book down after I started it, and when I finished it, I wished I could pick up the next one in the series right away. Looking forward to reading more of Collins' work.

Title:The Hunger Games
Author:Suzanne Collins
Date published:2008
Genre:Young Adult / Science Fiction
Series:Hunger Games Trilogy
Number of pages:374
Notes:borrowed from Catey


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