This is a tricky review to write because Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is a solid book; it’s engaging and a quick read. The trouble with reading it, though, is that you’ll want to read the second (Catching Fire) and you’ll be so intrigued by its cliffhanger that you’ll pick up the final book in the trilogy The Mockingjay, which is a tremendous let-down.
This book is more than an Americanized Battle Royale (a Japanese manga/movie about kids forced to fight to the death.) Collins’ fictional and futuristic Panem is divided into 12 districts and an oppressive Capitol. The districts are walled and separated from one another. Each year, all districts are required to send two tributes (a boy and girl) to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games and the victor’s district receives a year’s supply of food. As the Games are required viewing for all the people of Panem, the Capitol uses them as propaganda to showcase its domination.
The protagonist is a 16 year old huntress, Katniss Evergreen, and her accompanying tribute (and sort of love interest) is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son. Before you laugh at Pita, sorry, Peeta’s name, consider that the final point in the trilogy’s overwrought love triangle is Katniss’ hunting buddy: Gale. Part of the reason the first book of this trilogy is the best is because this love triangle is not able to take center stage. Katniss and Gale hunt together during the book’s establishing chapters, but she spends all subsequent chapters with Peeta. (Is it bad that I just accidentally typed ‘Pita’ for real?)
One of the most interesting elements of this novel is the setting. While it’s clear Panem exists in North America (established by a throwaway remark), little history is given and little history is needed. It’s enough to know the districts rebelled in the past and now they are forced to go without while forwarding the fruits of their labors to the opulent Capitol. The reader learns about each district in slices as Katniss and Peeta meet the other tributes. The pacing of information is brilliant and keeps the reader hooked. As the characters develop, so does their world.
The arena for the Games is enormous, containing a field, forest, and lake—far beyond what I expected. The Games are intense and carefully plotted. In Battle Royale, it’s something of a free for all. But here, there are Gamemakers who alter the arena to be sure the games never become too boring. Further, wealthy donors can buy gifts for a tribute in need. These two aspects elevate the action from a bunch of chance encounters. Even better: Collins does an apt job of giving the other tributes personalities. I surprised myself with an ability to remember who was left and keep them straight. I expected Peeta and Katniss to be in the arena with 22 fillers. Sure, about half were weeded out the first night, but Collins creates chemistry from the remainders.
That said, I do need to warn you about the cheesy Katniss/Gale/Peeta stuff. In no way is it convincing. There may be something between Katniss and Gale, but it’s rooted in their common history only. They are both deeply cynical and it’s hard to imagine them in anything romantic. No, Katniss gets on better with the more personable Peeta… but she is only faking that for the cameras in the arena. Until she feels it for real. But no, not really, it’s just for the cameras… is it? Katniss can’t decide. When she says she doesn’t know for the dozenth time, the reader realizes they don’t care. At times, it’s hard to discern whether she’s a poorly written character or an well-written sixteen year old.
While the ending is complete, it does leave ample room for another book. My best advice is to stop after reading after this one. The cliffhanger between the second and third is harder to resist and I don’t know anyone who likes The Mockingjay…
Overall: 4.1 It also receives a modicum of slack for technically being a YA book. I understand that you’re allowed to trade a tiny bit of substance for a tiny bit of style when aiming for a slightly younger audience. It also explains the awkward love triangle to a degree. To be honest though… The Hunger Games is more violent and disturbing than I expected for a YA book. I didn’t realize the intended audience until about a dozen people (all my age) recommended it and I looked it up on Amazon.
Translation: Read it. Then get out of the trilogy while you’re ahead.