Review: The Mockingjay

Note on SPOILERS: This review is for the final book of The Hunger Games trilogy. It’s impossible to discuss without giving spoilers for both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. That said, read at the risk of your potential enjoyment of the earlier books in this series.

MockingjayThe Mockingjay is an unsatisfying finish and the weakest of the three, but the reason is hard to pinpoint. Whatever criticism can be heaped upon The Mockingjay can be applied to the other books: the frenetic pacing, the crummy love-triangle, an unlikable protagonist, etc. In The Mockingjay, however, these flaws are amped up and harder to overlook. It lacks the spare moments of warmth and hope that were always to be found in the others. I don’t think it’s solid to write off a book as “too dark”, but the moments of darkness in The Mockingjay come at the expense of everything that has previously been established. Characters act out of sorts, seemingly for the express purpose of sinking the book faster. (In critiquing such actions, I’ll be careful to not give away the body count or ending; additionally, so much happens in this book that the details given here aren’t as spoiler-y as they may seem.)

The book is set a week or two after the events of Catching Fire. Peeta is being held by the Capitol and there is no news of whether he is dead or alive. Katniss, Gale, and the District 12 survivors are living underground in District 13. Katniss spends a good amount of time blowing off her responsibilities to nap in closets and contemplate whether or not she wants to become the face of the rebellion as ‘the Mockingjay’. Everything is being done to convince her to step into the role of figurehead by 13’s leader: President Coin. I use the word ‘figurehead’, because this is all Katniss can be. She’s a good face for a resistance, but it’s laughable to think of her as a leader.

Gale and Katniss share moments alone that I think are supposed to be meaningful, but they’ve drifted so far apart that it no longer feels genuine when she calls him her ‘best friend’. Collins wants the most out of her love triangle and isn’t going to let a little lack of compatibility get in her way. (I don’t imagine the filmmakers will either, have you seen the gorgeous men they found to play Gale and Peeta?) In this book, Collins has lost her grip on the lead characters and it falls to the reader to remember what was initially compelling about them.

Once Katniss’ sister, Prim, tells her to cut a deal with Coin by agreeing to be the Mockingjay, Katniss does so. From this point, there’s much of the same pageantry as when the Capitol prepared her for the Games. There is much talk of what she should wear, how she should be styled, what she should say… etc, etc. It becomes clear that Katniss can’t be given a script; she only does well in real world scenarios. To create propaganda for the rebellion, they decide to film her participation in minor, controlled battle situations. Because these scenes are so much about playacting, it becomes difficult to see Katniss as a real player in a real rebellion. Once this happens, it seems there is less and less at stake even as the tension of the book begins in earnest.

Then Peeta arrives in 13 after being brainwashed (‘hijacked’) by the Capitol into a dark version of himself who hates and distrusts Katniss. Until this point, Peeta’s strength has been one of the brighter points of the trilogy. He is steady and dependable, bringing a warmth that is lacking in all the other major players. Katniss must now try to win Peeta back over to himself, but she’s not terribly interested in doing so. While Katniss has been cold in the past, her strength and compassion for the underdogs of the world made her palatable. She slips from that standard here.

When these books began, Katniss, Peeta, etc. were the counterbalance to the Capitol’s cruelty and coldness. Now that Peeta has been damaged and Katniss is unfeeling, there is little separating the two groups. This is something Collins plays with as she contrasts the propaganda of District 13 with the pageanty of the Capitol. It’s an interesting contrast to show the similarities between Presidents Coin and Snow, but dragging Katniss down also is on par with having Han, Luke, and Leia decide to be petulant, selfish jerks in Return of the Jedi. It just doesn’t work.

So long as Katniss is going to sacrifice her better self for the sake of the rebellion, you’d think she’d be good at moving it along, right? Katniss tells her comrades and camera crew that she’s supposed to deviate from the schedule of photo ops for a real mission. When she leads them into a corner and feels guilty that they’re dropping one after the other, she confesses:

When everyone finally awakens, I confess. How I lied about the mission, how I jeopardized everyone in the pursuit of revenge. There’s a long silence after I finish. Then Gale says, “Katniss, we all knew you were lying about Coin sending you to assassinate Snow.”
“You knew, maybe. The soldiers from Thirteen didn’t,” I reply.
“Do you really think Jackson believed you had orders from Coin?” Cressida asks. “Of course she didn’t. But she trusts Boggs, he’d clearly wanted you to go on.”
“I never even told Boggs what I planned to do,” I say.
“You told everyone in Command!” Gale says. “It was one of your conditions for being the Mockingjay. ‘I kill Snow.'”(324)

When I was little, I’d pull elaborate April Fools jokes that never tricked anyone. I’d hop around, insisting I’d gotten them, until they patiently explained how they’d known all along. I feel as though this scene is an image of those moments of my childhood (except with guns). I understand that the root of this exchange is to show Katniss’ charisma: people have enough faith in her to follow her anywhere. But the mess the mission becomes only illustrates how misplaced this faith is.

Then finally Katniss and the remnants of her squad are near President Snow’s mansion. If you’re like me, you’ll get to this part and say, “Wait, there aren’t enough pages left for a satisfying conclusion!” As of page 345 of 390, Katniss still doesn’t know how she’ll get into the mansion. Even if she were to shoot Snow on the next page… is 44 pages enough to handle the fall-out from that sort of thing, resolve the rebellion, and conclude this love triangle nonsense?

No.

So what happens? There is chaos. And Katniss wakes up in the hospital where the chaotic events are explained to her. There’s not even dialogue for this:

So I don’t ask about anyone or anything, but people bring me a steady stream of information. On the war: [one sentence, omitted due to spoilers]. On President Snow: [one sentence, also omitted]. On my assassination team: [four brief sentences, omitted]. On my family: [one sentence, omitted].” (351)

That brings us to page 351 of 390. That recap blew through a lot of stuff in few pages… maybe there’s time for a satisfying ending… please, Ms. Collins? So Katniss gets all dolled up for a big day where the last few things may be resolved, but there is more chaos and she’s out of commission again. When she’s back, the final events are explained to her in much the same way as they were at the hospital.

To be fair, Collins is correct to realize Katniss can’t do everything to push the rebellion to its conclusion. So she had her star in the places she could, then took her offstage for the rest. That’s fine. But it isn’t too much to assume that Katniss will be heavily involved with the people who do the heavy lifting. This handy device of sending her away and sloppily informing the reader after the fact in a flat, minimalistic way is not satisfying to someone who has spent approximately 1,155 pages with these characters.

Mercifully, the end improves once Collins stops summarizing. But then she tacks on an epilogue only a notch above J. K. Rowling’s infamous epilogue for The Deathly Hallows. Yikes.

Overall: 2.5. The worst of the trilogy, but you can’t really avoid it if you want to know what happens. And because the first book is so promising… you will want to know what happens. This book is a necessary evil for the curious. I am just so disappointed in the change in Katniss and the overall icy tone that further isolated the characters and stunted their interactions (a lack of chemistry independent from the expected doom and gloom of the rebellion).

Translation: Read it for closure, but not for pleasure.

Review: Catching Fire

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. So, read at your own risk.

catching fire coverCatching Fire begins a few months after the events of the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta have settled in 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 has 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’ 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’ 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. So 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, he 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 her, 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 girl, start connecting the pieces! So 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’ 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.  This book starts the slow descent into the doom and gloom of Mockingjay. I’m not keen on Katniss’ 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.

Translation: Eh. Read it, or don’t. The more I think on it, the more neutral I feel.

Review: The Hunger Games

Hunger_gamesThis 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.