Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Note on SPOILERS: While I try to keep reviews spoiler free, this is the second book in a trilogy. Just mentioning the main characters constitutes a spoiler for The Hunger Games. Read at your own risk.

Catching Fire begins a few months after the events of the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta have settled into the Victor’s Village alongside Haymitch, and life is resuming its normal swing. Katniss lives in fear of the Capitol’s President Snow after her rebellious action in the arena allowed both her and Peeta to emerge as victors. Her only hope of salvation is to convince the other districts and the Capitol that her actions were of a love-crazed girl and not a rebel. As a reader, I found myself wishing Katniss would make an attempt to convince me also so this love triangle could pick up some steam. As for Gale, he’s been assigned the role of her cousin so no one can be too suspicious of their hunting outings (though everyone is).

Second books aren’t easy. Often, the beginning is a simple rehashing of the first while the middle/end is a set-up for the big finale. Collins handles the first part of this smoothly with the ideal amount of background information. Having read the first the day before, I expected recaps to be tiresome, but even as she tills old ground, Collins works toward a new and darker tone for the trilogy. Much information is provided by contrasting the state of District 12 before and after Katniss’s victory. By placing emphasis on the Capitol’s slow, squeezing grip around the districts, Collins expands the story to something that will eventually include a full-on rebellion against the Capitol. After the first book was so centered on the Games, I was pleased to see things begin opening up in the second.

Then things start to go wrong.
Katniss and Peeta are sent back into the arena for the 75th Hunger Games; every 25th is a Quarter Quell and allows for a sadistic twist. Seeing no opportunity for a stunt to save them both, Katniss swears she will save Peeta for a multitude of reasons, love not among them. I’m deeply split on this plot point. It’s easy to say it allows the book to become a play back of the first in returning to the arena, but it makes a great deal of sense: President Snow is tired of Katniss and what better way to crush the fledgling rebellion than by killing her in front of everyone in the very place constructed to exercise power over the districts? The more Katniss contemplates the reasoning behind his decision, the better move Snow seems to have made. If I were writing this story, I’d be pleased with my handy set-up. As a reader, I couldn’t entirely suppress the thought of: This again?? I was disappointed for Katniss’s world to begin opening only to again shut around the arena.

The upside is that the intensity of the arena drowns out the tiresome, kissy playacting between her and Peeta and quiets the increasingly silly love triangle. Just as I was celebrating this, a new problem surfaced: Katniss is dense. The books are written in a conversational, explanatory style and the reader knows nothing beyond her experience. When something of a twist begins to be set in motion and the reader picks up on the very clues Katniss dismisses repeatedly, it’s annoying that she remains ignorant until things are explained to her.

The main proof of her obliviousness involves a huge spoiler, so I’ll provide a small example.  Ever since Katniss wore a mockingjay (a mutant bird) pin in the arena, it has been her symbol. Before the Games, one of the Gamemakers shows her something about his watch:

Plutarch has run his thumb across the crystal face of the watch and for just a moment an image appears, glowing as if lit by candlelight. It’s another mockingjay. Exactly like the pin in my dress. Only this one disappears . . . I’m thinking about Plutarch showing off his pretty, one-of-a-kind watch to me. There was something strange about it. Almost clandestine. But why? Maybe he thinks someone else will steal his idea of putting a disappearing mockingjay on a watch face. Yes, he probably paid a fortune for it and now he can’t show it to anyone because he’s afraid someone will make a cheap, knockoff version. Only in the Capitol. (83)

This scene occurs at the end of a somewhat strange conversation. Plutarch mentions a meeting, and says, “It starts at midnight.” Katniss objects because that seems late, and his response is to reveal the mockingjay. I understood the “It starts at midnight” as some sort of code, especially when coupled with his “clandestine” watch and evasiveness. She mentally chides him for having a flashy thing he can’t show anyone and blames the typical Capitol mentality . . . but wait, the typical Capitol mentality is to show the flashy stuff, not hide it. Later, Katniss runs into a pair of refugees from another district who carry a cracker with a mockingjay pattern.

It makes no sense. My bird baked into bread. Unlike the stylish renderings I saw in the Capitol, this is definitely not a fashion statement. “What is it? What does that mean?” I ask harshly, still prepared to kill.
“It means we’re on your side.” (139)

Even if I’d dismissed the early scene with Plutarch, Katniss recalls it and seeing the two in connection: secret mockingjay . . . clandestine watch . . . Plutarch was trying to give her a heads-up that he’s on her side. It’s not yet clear in what way he can help, but you’d think Katniss would at least start thinking about it. Then she’s in front of the Gamemakers to be evaluated before going into the arena:

I try to catch Plutarch Heavensbee’s eye, but he seems to be intentionally ignoring me, as he has the entire training period. I remember how he sought me out for a dance, how pleased he was to show me the mockingjay on his watch. (236)

Still! It’s still ticking around her mind. C’mon, Katniss, start connecting the pieces! Then Katniss is in the arena and it’s suddenly very clear what the phrase “It starts at midnight” means:

A memory struggles to surface in my brain. I see a clock. No, it’s a watch, resting in Plutarch Heavensbee’s palm. “It starts at midnight,” Plutarch said. And then my mockingjay lit up briefly and vanished. In retrospect, it’s like he was giving me a clue about the arena. But why would he? (327)

This scene wrenched a chunk from my sanity. It’s LIKE he was giving her a clue? Granted, the phrase in itself isn’t enough to give her a head start in the arena, but he provided inside information while showing her the symbol that (as was explained to her) shows he’s on her side. Isn’t that enough of a why? He tipped her off because he supports her. Her mind should have been reeling with implications and maybe figuring how this factors into her arena experience. But no, Katniss carries on in her usual way until Plutarch has the opportunity to explain it all himself:

Of course, when I showed you this, I was merely tipping you off about the arena. As a mentor. I thought it might be a first step toward gaining your trust. (386)

Oh, Plutarch. You’re the first in a long line of people that are about to grossly overestimate Katniss’s ability to fit together clues. You didn’t tip her off. You made her think you were typical Capitol stuff with a fancypants watch.

Overall: 3.3 (out of 5.0) This book starts the slow descent into the doom and gloom of Mockingjay. I’m not keen on Katniss’s sudden dimness and I’m not overly stoked with the return to the arena. While it’s justified plot-wise, it still feels like a holding pattern imposed by an author with not quite enough material for a full trilogy.

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