Monday, May 29, 2017

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Rating: WORTHY!

I'm in process of moving titles from my 'Novel series' page, which will be retired eventually, to the regular blog page. Here's another trilogy. I'm not normally a fan of YA trilogies, but this one was one of the rare and delightful exceptions I've encountered.

This novel - indeed this entire phenomenon - really needs no introduction, since it's been so immensely successful. The only reason I have it here is that I wanted my own review where I can reference it and know it's here and know what it contains!

Thirteen colonies surround the nation's capital in the country of Panem (read: USA). At some point in the past there was a disaster of some sort, which remains unexplained and somehow these colonies (harking back to the original 13 US colonies) were the result of it. At a point after that, some three-quarters of a century ago, the colonies rebelled against the capital, and were brutally put down, one of them (District 13) being destroyed completely, so we're told.

As a punishment for this rebellion, every year since that war, each district has been required to send two young people between the ages of 12 and 18, as a 'tribute' to the capital, where they compete against each other in a vicious survival game, the last one remaining alive being declared victor and being showered with fame and honors, except of course the 'honor' of remaining in the capital where citizens are spoiled rotten, leading lives of frivolity, extravagance, and hedonism.

If you really look at it, none of this makes any real sense, but if you’re willing to put that behind you then the story gets better! The only thing you can really blame this for is that it lamentably spawned a shit-ton of clones, none of which have ever come close to the standing this one has, and some of which (Veronica Roth I'm looking at you) are closer to a joke than to an intelligent and thoughtful adventure.

Our interest in this story begins in District 12, a coal mining district, where Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who illegally hunts for food with a bow (why is it illegal?), and lives in squalor, poverty and endless hunger with her mother and younger sister Primrose. Her father died in a mining explosion. She often hunts with her close friend Gale, a slightly older guy. This year is the 74th Hunger Games, and each young person is required to put their name in either the boy box or the girl box, so that one of each gender will be selected. At least it’s an equal opportunity system, right? No glass ceilings here!

Candidates can put in extra copies of their name; this garners extra food for their family, but also a greater chance of being selected. A representative from the capital arrives to draw the names, and Katniss is horrified when Primrose's name is pulled out. Katniss, knowing that Prim wouldn’t survive the first five minutes of the contest quickly volunteers in place of her sister. She expects to die, and before she leaves, she begs Gale to take care of her mom and Prim. Given how close Gale and Katniss are supposed to be, and given that Gale has been putting his name into the draw extra times, you would think that he'd immediately volunteer to be her partner, but he does not. I found this rather revealing about what would happen later.

However, we also learn that Peeta Mellark, a baker's son, who tossed some bread to a starving Katniss some time before, is all but in love with her, yet he doesn't volunteer either; however, he does get picked as the male candidate, which is an amazing coincidence. Given the potential result of the games that year, it’s also amazing that there never has been a year when all candidates died!

After an all-too-brief goodbye, Katniss and Peeta are forced to board the express train to the capital. Before then, Katniss rails on her mother, who went into shock when her husband died, forcing mothering duties onto Katniss. Now her daughter gets in her face and yells at her, ordering her not to tune out if Katniss dies, because Prim needs her. On the train, the tributes meet Haymitch Abernathy, the victor of the 50th Hunger Games, who is now a professional layabout and a drunk, but he's supposed to be their coach! Katniss is still in a state of shock, but Peeta seems to be 'getting it' and playing the part of a candidate, trying to ingratiate himself with Abernathy and then with the capital populace.

They arrive in the city, overwhelmed by it all. They have a 'style' team assigned individually to each of them, and Katniss bonds quite closely with her team. Her style coach is Cinna who takes her under his wing and tries a very daring approach to their appearance at the opening night - a public exhibition of the twelve teams, viewed by a massive audience, not only in the capital, but also in the districts via public TV screens set up especially for the event.

On a show devoted to the games, each candidate is interviewed by popular TV personality Caesar Flickerman. This is their one big chance to win over the public in the hope of garnering sponsors who can help them during the games by sending in helpful gifts to aid their chosen tribute. These gifts can be food, medicine, or anything else the tribute might need to help them survive and win. The gifts are sent floating down to the tribute on a parachute. Katniss has a hard time adapting to this showmanship, but when Peeta is interviewed, last of all the tributes, he confesses his love for Katniss, and this immediately sets them apart and makes them memorable and popular, as "star-crossed" (and yes that is so overused in novels these days it's nauseating) tragic lovers, one of whom must die, although Katniss thinks he simply said it as a ploy to win sponsors.

Eventually, the games begin. The twelve candidates are arrayed around a giant cornucopia containing supplies and weapons to help the tributes in their respective killing sprees Abernathy has advised Katniss and Peeta to get away from the initial carnage - to not even try to grab anything, but to flee from it and hide. He advised Katniss to play to her strengths, living off the land, staying out of the way as the other tributes whittle each other down. The slaughter is horrific, with almost fifty percent of the tributes dying right there at the start.

Katniss follows Abernathy's advice, but she manages to snag a backpack with some useful things in it, and she gets away and hides out in trees. She uses her hunting skills, and desperately tries to find water to slake her terrible thirst in the hot and dry forest in those first few days. After a day or two, she runs into Rue, a diminutive tribute from District 11, who reminds Katniss of Prim. She takes Rue under her wing, forming an alliance, which would seem to be of benefit only to Rue, yet Katniss learns some useful things from her little partner.

She's disturbed to find that Peeta appears to have formed his own alliance, with a group of tributes from the richer districts, which can afford to specially train their best people for the games, and whose tributes frequently win. But Peeta is playing on Katniss's team, and he gives Katniss and desperately needed break when he actually does have a chance to kill her.

To Katniss's horror, despair, and anger, her little friend Rue is killed with a spear, a death for which Katniss immediately exacts revenge with a knee-jerk loosing of an arrow at Rue's attacker. Things really start to get out of hand as Katniss sings an old nursery rhyme to Rue as she dies, before collecting flowers, and placing them on her chest, laying Rue's hands gently over them. She raises her hand in a signal of respect to District 11, and this signal becomes a rallying call.

As Katniss is beginning to fall into despair over Rue's death, an announcement comes over the speakers which are all over the artificial games arena: there has been a change of rules which now permits any two tributes from the same district to win as a pair. This fires Katniss up to seek out Peeta, and she eventually discovers him badly wounded, and hiding beneath one of his amazingly-painted disguises.

Katniss nurses him back to health, playing the part a girl in love to curry favor with sponsors, and it works. Peeta recovers and they manage to kill the last tribute, remaining as the sole two game winners, but the organizers cruelly change the rule again, trying to force the two of them to battle it out to the bitter end. Katniss rebels against this and she and Peeta agree to swallow the poisonous berries, but the organizers chicken out at this, not daring to have a game with no winner. Katniss and Peeta are declared to be the first joint winners of the games.

Abernathy warns Katniss that she has now painted a target on her back by defying the game organizers in front of the entire Hunger Games audience. So the author achieved a satisfying ending to the first volume, without leaving an unnatural cliff-hanger, and without making the first volume nothing more than a prologue. YA authors could learn a lot from Suzanne_Collins, but she's also now in the unenviable 'Rowling' position of having reached her peak with her first real effort, and seemingly having nowhere to go, but downhill from here! You can't win in this game, can you?!