Wednesday, March 21, 2012

catching fire

Steer clear if you don't want to know about major plot points in Catching Fire, the second book in the The Hunger Games series.

Like Theseus, the Greek mythical hero that she is patterned on, Katniss Everdeen can be kind of a dope sometimes. She is incredibly instinctive and resourceful and clever, but completely incapable of seeing the bigger picture. She is also seventeen years old, and even though she has helped support her family since her father's death, and been in tons of life-threatening situations, she has also led a sheltered life. A born rule-breaker, she managed to survive and win the Hunger Games with her fellow district competitor, Peeta Mellark at her side, the first time the Games has ever had two champions in one year.

Sinister President Snow sees the double winners as a direct challenge to his authority and places all the blame with Katniss. As she and Peeta embark on a victory tour of the nation, he visits her and threatens her. She must help quell any rebellious feelings that may be stirring in the districts, or he will come down hard and fast on her and her friends and family. It is soon clear as they travel that the two young winners and "lovers" presence is having the absolute opposite effect desired by Snow, as Katniss and her token, the mockingjay, are taken up as a symbol of hope and a rallying cry to end the oppression by the Capitol.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Liam Hemsworth as Gale in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games
The love triangle is still pretty unconvincing in the second book, and ultimately not as important to the story as what is happening in Panem. We like the two guys she likes, sort of, but we never really get to know them, as Katniss doesn't seem to know them very well, either. Sex and love are something she is clearly unprepared for. If there wasn't a Twilight series, one feels that author Suzanne Collins and her heroine could concentrate on what really interests them — the politics of Panem and the coming-of-age of Katniss and the difficult moral choices she continually faces. If Collins really wants the love triangle to feel a bit less lop-sided in the final book, Mockingjay, she better tell us more about Gale, who right now is just the strong silent type.

When Collins isn't having Katniss puzzle over the teenage problem of who she really likes the most, she is telling the reader more details about Panem and the rebellion that Katniss and her mockingjay symbol helped jumpstart in the first novel, The Hunger Games. There are times that Catching Fire feels like it's treading water a bit, with expository paragraphs recapping what happened in the first book. Are there really readers who, not having read The Hunger Games, would pick this one up first? Should the author really care about them so much?

We see all the characters through Katniss's eyes and narration, so the reader must at times fill in the blanks, or finds themself actually ahead of Katniss in terms of evil President Snow's plotting. This tends to keep all the other characters rather sketchy, but they are still interesting and appealing enough to stand out, especially Peeta Mellark, their mentor Haymitch, fellow Hunger Games champion Finnick, and stylist Cinna.

Donald Sutherland as President Snow in the upcoming film.
When the action takes us back into the arena, I was a little ticked off (pun intended), but the pacing is great and there are enough surprises to indicate that the series is really going somewhere. It's not just a "which cute guy should I choose" or a first book reboot. Collins has something to say about war and governments and the innocent ones who get caught in the crossfire. Her story isn't heavy-handed, but it will be interesting to see if a sequel that so clearly illustrates oppressive governments and corrupt society will have an effect on the belief systems of young readers who grew up loving these characters and re-reading the books.

The other nice thing about this series is that with all of the science fiction-like creatures and threats that encompass Katniss's world, she and the other main character, Peeta, are really just a couple of kids who are doing their best to keep each other alive. Unlike a lot of other YA fiction, Katniss isn't a vampire or a wizard or anything "special" except a very resourceful young lady. As frustrating as she may be at times — she has a tendency to get a hold of the wrong end of the stick and fiercely pursue it — she is brave and real and we can't help rooting for her. Or hesitate grabbing up the final book in the series and see how it all comes out.

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