The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the first novel in a YA trilogy about a country that rises out of the ashes of America. Panem is divided into twelve districts and a capitol city. As punishment for an early uprising in the nation's history, the capitol runs a barbaric game every year where two children--ages 12 to 18--from each district will be trained to fight to the death in a televised competition. Katniss, a 16 year old from District 12, volunteers for the games in place of her 12 year old sister Prim. Told in first person from the perspective of Katniss, The Hunger Games works as a thrilling look into teenage psyche. We never leave Katniss' mind and go through the entire ordeal in choppy detail. It's surprising how well Collins captures this particular character and makes her such a self-realized independent young woman. To see a character this strong as the lead in a YA novel is encouraging considering the weak lovesick puddles of nothing that can masquerade as iconic characters in the field.
Katniss is not a friendly person by nature. She hates the Capitol for the yearly Hunger Games and its oppressive rule of the people. For her family's safety, she's learned to keep her mouth shut and not show any emotion. She is a highly trained hunter who sells her kills on the black market to keep her family alive. Katniss has an eye and an ear for minute details but does not dwell on them. She grabs enough information to stay alive in District 12 and that's enough.
I've actually avoided reading The Hunger Games because of the conceit of the novel. One of my favorite modern novels is Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, another post-modern society thriller about young people forced into a deadly game. Takami provides so much detail in his prose--every character has a beautifully composed moment to shine before their deaths--that I feared Suzanne Collins was riffing on a theme she had no chance of pulling off. I was foolish to avoid the book this long.
Collins' novel is broken into three sections of equal length. You've already developed a strong bond with Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta before the games even begin. From there, you are so invested in their safety that missing out on most of the other characters is no great loss. You learn what you need to learn to get by and focus in on the underdogs from District 12. The few times Collins dares to step away from this laser-focus are welcome diversions into humanity, not misguided attempts to pad the novel to reach some magical length.
The biggest strength of The Hunger Games is Collins' succinct descriptions of a very imaginative environment. The Capital is filled with bizarre looking people painted every color you can imagine, though their artificiality is made clear when Effie Trinkett--a civil servant of sorts who becomes responsible for the care and well-being of the District 12 tributes--is knocked off-balance during the tribute ceremony.
Then [the mayor] reads the list of past District 12 victors. In seventy-four years, we have had exactly two. Only one is still alive. Haymitch Abernathy, a paunchy, middle-aged man, who at this moment appears hollering something unintelligible, staggers onto the stage, and falls into the third chair. He’s drunk. Very. The crowd responds with its token applause, but he’s confused and tries to give Effie Trinket a big hug, which she barely manages to fend off.
The mayor looks distressed. Since all of this is being televised, right now District 12 is the laughingstock of Panem, and he knows it. He quickly tries to pull the attention back to the reaping by introducing Effie Trinket.
Bright and bubbly as ever, Effie Trinket trots to the podium and gives her signature, “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” Her pink hair must be a wig because her curls have shifted slightly off-center since her encounter with Haymitch.
What starts out as a tendency towards too much exposition quickly becomes the actual voice of Katniss. She picks up on the general idea of events and only details important identifying information. Haymitch--her trainer for the Hunger Games--is a chronic drunk and Effie is obsessed with appearances. The rest passes by as "this happened then this then this" because Katniss has already moved on in her mind.
Collins creates a believable sci-fi world of new technology and strange new creatures in The Hunger Games. The story works so well because the changes are not so radical that the reader cannot relate, but the world is just different enough to not horrify the reader. Some of the changes are wonderful; others are disturbing. I'm particularly fond of the mockingjay, a hybrid bird that can memorize and repeat long strains of music. Collins always weighs the narrative in favor of character development, using a few choice invented elements to give the novel its own unique rhythm.
Where Takami's goal was to mock the ineffective methods of forcing children to stay in school in modern Japan, Collins' goal is to create a story of survival. She's not trying to push a specific satirical element. There are elements of encouraging the reader to think independently and not believe everything they're told at face value, but they are presented in such a specific context in the story that they become part of a more universal message. You need to focus on your own well-being and do what you can to protect your best interests. Help others when you can but remember that you can't help anyone else if you hurt yourself.
The Hunger Games does work as a standalone narrative and I cannot recommend reading it enough. This is not a case of an author leaving you with no resolution at the end of the story. If the second and third book were never written, you wouldn't miss them. However, there is enough depth and interest in the first book to make me want to continue in the trilogy.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.