Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: Catching Fire (Hunger Games 2)

I'm finding that as my student load approaches 50, I'm more and more stressed by the end-of-quarter grading rush.  For some reason it took me all of Thursday, Friday, and most of Saturday to tackle the final exams and reading worksheets, and I'm by no means done with final grades yet.  This translates into zero time to do things that I actually set the blog up to talk about: quilting and knitting.  So no pretty pictures to share, either.  Instead, I've decided to continue my book reviews of the Hunger Games trilogy.

I’ve already reviewed the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy here.  Today I want to tackle the second, Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins.  I will do my best not to give any spoilers for the 2nd or 3rd books in this review, but I will freely refer to events of the 1st book, so if you have not read it yet you may want to skip this post.

As the second book opens, Katniss Everdeen, the first-person protagonist, has secured a position for herself and co-champion Peeta that is nearly unheard of in the benighted history of District Twelve.  Only once before has a champion emerged from Twelve, and he is Haymitch, the town drunk.  But the shadowy totalitarian rulers at the Capitol, personified by the creepy and all-too-personal President Snow, will not let Katniss and Peeta live in comfortable luxury.  Their victory in last year's games was won by threatening a double-suicide, thereby cheating the public out of their entertainment and somehow posing a threat to the stability of the Capitol.

Katniss and Peeta go on a victory tour and see rumblings of political unrest throughout the districts they tour, as well as the ruthless hand of the government in suppressing any dissent.  They must act as if they are in love, or reprisals will undoubtedly fall on their families and friends.  As champions they are expected to train and advise the next year's champions, but this is a special anniversary year, the 75th since the beginning of the Hunger Games, and it is announced that this year's contestants will be drawn from the winners of previous years.  Think of it as the "all-star" version of your favorite reality show, but to the death.  So the central conflict of this book involves another entry into the arena, forced combat in front of a command audience, and kill-or-be-killed situations.

Now, I freely admit that I am not a major consumer of dystopian or Young Adult fiction, and especially not of the combination of the two genres.  However, I have a fair amount of familiarity with the ancient Romans, and some with the realm of politics, and Catching Fire does not create a completely believable story on either point.  Juvenal's famous quote, "panem et circenses" may have given the Capitol its name and provided inspiration for creating a fascinating fantasy world, but it was in actuality more of an indictment against the Roman people, as you can see in translation:
Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
In other words, you can't be manipulated unless you let yourself be manipulated.  I would have been more patient with the story if the Capitol had been Roman in more than name: but these effete narcissists would have been wiped off the map by real Romans, or even real barbarians.  I found it impossible to believe that the same culture that took such an avid interest in voting on Katniss' wedding gowns would also have the military savvy and stamina to terrorize the populace so absolutely, even to the point of hidden cameras, genetically engineered torture, and mind control.  The Romans may have had their decadent elements, but they were much more straightforward than that, and they respected courage and leadership in any form they saw it.

However, this book did much more than the first in the series to fill in the gaps in the fictional world of Panem that were troubling me.  We understand a little more of the structure of the country and the seething resentment that must inevitably bubble to the surface.  But I am still troubled by the cross-genre nature of the book itself.  It seems counterintuitive to write an anti-war book condemning the over-reliance on popular culture and violent entertainment, while at the same time coopting your readers into the very manipulative, violent entertainment you are ostensibly condemning.  And that's what happens to us -- remember, first-person narrator in the present tense means that we are connected to Katniss' thoughts with an intimacy and immediacy that could be compared to the "teaser" interviews that contestants give in our reality TV programming.  There is no time to think ahead or live in anything more than the moment.  When we do reflect on what we've read, we realize that other than the enforced intimacy, we don't really like Katniss as a heroine.  She's tough and gutsy, yes.  Quick with a snarky comment, she's honest in the midst of an artificial world and you want to like her.  But when the action is thickest, she tends to be rather passive, letting others make the important calls and retreating into her personal angst after just enough decisive action to advance the plot to the next point of crisis.  At the very end of Catching Fire, the final plot revelation/cliffhanger comes so abruptly that it's disorienting... leaving you, of course, with a compelling need to read the third book, whether you like Katniss or not.

It makes for gripping, page-turning reading, suitable for older teens with enough maturity not to be depressed by the heavy theme.  Or younger teens who will be oblivious to the heavy theme and enjoy it as a violent action/thriller.

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