In the acknowledgments page of her YA novel Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins thanks her father for his efforts to find a way to teach children about the reality of war and peace. It is clear in the third book of The Hunger Games trilogy that Collins has found a way to continue her father's work. The novel is dark, ambiguous, and shocking because war will never form together into a tidy little package. Katniss Everdeen has been transported to the underground and completely independent District 13. There, under the leadership of President Coin, the progeny of the sacrificed district live a highly regimented life. Everything is done on a strict schedule and deviation is grounds for swift and severe punishment. President Coin has been planning the rebellion against the Capital for years. All it took was the right symbol, Katniss, to come along and set the plan in motion. The rebellion will be the deciding factor in the fate of Panem, as everyone on both sides of the conflict is willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause.
Mockingjay is the darkest book of the trilogy. Gone is the safety net of only twenty-four participants in a battle to the death. Anyone and everyone can be blown to ash as an act of war. Katniss is no longer in a stable enough place to be considered a reliable narrator. Her fellow former victors are harvested by the Capital or the rebellion as key strategists in the war.
The elaborate death traps and mutations still exist. Collins does not celebrate them with great detail as she did in the first two books. Katniss is numb to the manipulation of the Capital in the same way that she can only feel the pain of the ever increasing death toll in her nightmares. The pods that explode to unleash unimaginable pain and destruction are more horrifying than ever before. Katniss is just incapable of responding to them unless customized for her own experience.
Much like the Mockingjay in The Hunger Games and self-sacrifice in Catching Fire, Mockingjay has a recurring but not overwhelming image that defines the tone of the novel. It is the smell of one of President Snow's genetically altered roses. Katniss encounters a fresh bud in her Victory Village home and is haunted by Snow's promise to destroy her for the rest of the book. It is not a steady presence of doom; it is a shock to the system as that rose smell is the one thing that forces Katniss to deal with the reality of her situation.
After the disappointment of Catching Fire, which was almost a self-indulgent exercise in exploring Katniss' psyche, it's quite remarkable to see that Collins was capable of exploring PTSD in a believable way. Not only do you believe that Katniss is suffering from the psychological ramifications of two trips to the Hunger Games, you believe that Katniss is still a teenage girl who is not very good at picking up on social cues.
The difference between the successful novels in the trilogy and the failure is the believability of the narrator. Katniss did not act like Katniss until the last few pages of Catching Fire, which made the whole novel feel like an exercise in needless manipulation. From the first page of Mockingjay, Katniss is back. Without her, The Hunger Games trilogy would just be an exercise in literary destruction. With her, they're powerful, accessible, and thoughtful novels about government responsibility, fighting for what's right, and the psychological and social ramifications of war. Conflict is inevitable. How you choose to respond to it is your choice.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.