As much as it pains me to admit, sometimes, the common belief that a sequel can never be as good as the original is right. In the case of Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, the belief holds true. The book starts out too slow and then routinely tilts its hand to too much foreshadowing when the story becomes worthwhile. Katniss Everdeen is readusting to life back in District 12 after her victory in the Hunger Games. She has no need to hunt anymore, yet she still crawls under the fence to catch wild game with her bow and arrow. She brings food to all the suffering people in the district and shops everywhere with her enormous winnings to help her people.
The Capital begins to crack down on the town after the victory tour to all the districts fails to soothe a growing rebellion caused by Katniss’ actions in the Hunger Games arena. As punishment, District 12 is stormed by Peacekeepers and the 75th Hunger Games are used as an excuse to kill off 23 former victors: one male and one female from each district. Katniss automatically has to enter because she is the only female victor in the history of District 12.
The problem with Catching Fire is that Suzanne Collins gets too trapped in Katniss’ psyche with a lazy device. Katniss admits that she’s not strong on picking up social cues, so things that are quite obvious to the reader the first time they’re mentioned are labored over again and again. The moments where Katniss has horrific nightmares and flashes of what might be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are quite strong and moving. However, those are all secondary to a teenage girl who previously only picked up on details to survive turning into a young woman who labors over ever scene of every event like the deluxe edition of an encyclopedia set.
Unlike The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is clearly targetted at the YA market. Collins doesn’t trust her target audience to pick up on delicate foreshadowing this time. She rams recurring images into the story again and again for pages upon pages until Katniss realizes what is happening. It’s the prose equivalent of an episode of Blues Clues. Everything is spoonfed to the reader tiny bite by tiny bite until you know what’s happening. Then you keep getting it piecemeal until Collins is convinced everyone will understand it.
It’s a terrible disconnect with the content of the piece. If the YA audience is mature enough to grasp the reality of the rebellion and the horror the 24 prior champions have suffered through only to be forced back into the arena, then they are mature enough to not need the under-4 educational TV angle.
Worse still, Catching Fire becomes quite graphic in its depition of violence, death, and destruction. Whippings, chemical burns, eviscerations, and electrocutions are all provided in gory imagery. How do you solve the disconnect between overly simplistic/leading prose and mature subject matter?
The structure and piecemeal writing style in Catching Fire are a shame. Once you get past the first of three sections, the story comes alive. It moves quick and jumps forward in time over and over to get the 24 former victors together. The arena they are to battle in is more menacing than I could have imagined and the secret of surviving cruelly ripped away time and again.
There are moments in Catching Fire that put The Hunger Games to shame. Unfortunately, it feels like Collins’ editor or publisher suddenly didn’t trust a YA audience to understand the style and structure of the first book. The whole thing reaks of manipulation to dumb down the book and it becomes a disappointment. Katniss’ story is so much better when Katniss stays in character, which only happens for about a quarter of the novel. What started out so strong in book one starts teetering dangerously close to the worst trappings of mass market YA paperbacks.
There’s enough in Catching Fire to keep a big fan of The Hunger Games happy. There’s just not enough there for the sequel to survive on its own merits.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.