I resisted the Hunger Games juggernaut for quite awhile, in the face of near-universal acclaim among my book-blogging cohorts. But I caved in shortly after the second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire, was published, although it wasn't without anxiety. I decided to read them back-to-back. For that reason, it makes sense to me to discuss them both in a single review.
They're not perfect books...but while it's possible that hundreds of book bloggers could indeed be wrong, in this case they're not. Suzanne Collins has created a world that intrigues, a plot that immediately grabs your attention and keeps you on the edge of your seat, and an appealing protagonist who propels the whole thing forward.
In a dystopian setting in an indeterminate time, North America has become the country of Panem, where twelve Districts are ruled from a prosperous, decadent central Capitol. Each District is organized around a primary industry (fishing, agriculture, mining, etc.), and its citizens don't know much about the inhabitants of other districts. Life is difficult and tightly controlled.
Over seventy years ago, the Capitol crushed a civil war, and continues to assert its domination over the Districts with its Peacekeeping force and control of the food supply. Food is part of the grand prize in the annual Hunger Games, in which each District sends two youth to the Capitol as "tributes" to compete in survival trials. The winner secures prosperity for his or her family and generous rations for the home District until the next year's Games, and needs strategy, cleverness, and a true killer instinct.
The premise of the Hunger Games themselves fascinated me. It's the ultimate high-stakes reality-TV show, literally. They're broadcast around the clock throughout the country, and the tributes become overnight celebrities who gain sponsors and renown as their numbers dwindle. The contestants may form alliances or mark each other as immediate targets. Some of them are playing out a storyline that may or may not have been fully revealed to them, and they're all being manipulated and orchestrated by the Gamemakers who oversee everything. It's Survivor + Big Brother with some Lord of the Flies - and, in Catching Fire, a touch of Lost - mixed in, and I couldn't pull myself away from it.
Katniss Everdeen, the sixteen-year-old primary caretaker of her family since her father's death in a mining accident five years earlier, volunteers to go to the 74th annual Games as a replacement for the original girl selected as District 12's tribute - her little sister Prim. She's a resourceful girl with a talent for hunting and skill with a bow and arrow, and despite the fact her District hasn't fared well in previous Games, she's determined to make it through and provide for her mother and sister, whom she leaves under the protection of her best friend and hunting partner Gale Hawthorne. She isn't thrilled about her fellow District tribute, baker's son Peeta Mellark - and is even less so when she learns that there are plans to present the two of them to the country as star-crossed young lovers. However, as the Games progress, she realizes that if she can't win them herself, having Peeta win would be almost as good for her family and their District, and seeing that he remains alive gives her additional motivation.
(Since there is a second book, I'm not treating Katniss' victory in the Hunger Games as a spoiler; reading about how she gets there offers plenty of suspense and excitement.)
Just a year later, Katniss returns to the Games again in the Quarter Quell, an "all-star" edition held every 25 years and played by previous winners; other than that, the rules aren't any different. But the stakes are a bit higher this time. Katniss' actions in the first Games have made her famous and inspiring to the citizens of Panem - and potentially dangerous to the Capitol. Her motivations are a little different this time as well - she's still focused on protecting her family, but she's also trying to sort out her feelings for Peeta and Gale, each of whom has a lot in his favor.
Both books are told from Katniss' point of view, and I found her a very engaging and convincing character - strong, driven, complicated, emotional, confused and not always fully aware of her situation at times, yet impressively clever at other times. I just had to root for her all the way through, even when I didn't necessarily agree with what she was doing. Even though the books are more plot- than character-driven, some of that drive is weakened if the characters don't resonate - and in this series, they certainly do.