Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
It’s a deep burn, so deep.
“CATCHING FIRE” IS A CLASSIC second entry in the sci-fi, fight-the-power-trilogy tradition. Whereas in the first round people must begin to resist and reluctant, unlikely heroes must come into their roles, the second must show the battle essentially started, with sides chosen and things at their most grim. The full might and cruelty of the bad guys must be demonstrated and the good guys must realize and be daunted by how hard it is to chew what they have bitten off. In the model of “The Empire Strikes Back,” the middle entry is usually also the best of the three.
“Catching Fire” meets most, if not all of these criteria. The writing and plotting keep pages turning in the same way “The Hunger Games” did, and Collins makes sure not to fall into any simple notion of victory. While every good reader pulled for Katniss to win in the first book, its follow-up is a reminder that surviving the arena is not a recipe for happily ever after. Katniss and her family live in much greater comfort, as do the people of her home District 12, who receive monthly rations as part of her victory. But the scrutiny of the Capitol is even greater — especially concerning the nationally televised romance that puts her in a difficult (if a little over-angsty) love triangle. Removed from the basic survival needs of her earlier, poorer life, Katniss has more time to be haunted by the fact that her salvation is the result of the grisly deaths of the other tributes. And, of course, the Capitol is not done with her. The book begins on the eve of a victory tour in which Katniss will visit the other 11 districts and present herself to the residents whose children she killed or outlasted. It gets worse from there – which makes it that much better to read.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF A TRILOGY is typically the hardest to manage, primarily because the seemingly insurmountable odds of the first two books must now be surmounted. And that has to happen without disappointing the readers who — let’s be honest — have come this far because we are entertained by the extraordinary suffering and struggle we’ve encountered up to this point. The final book of The Hunger Games series is also, I’m finding, the hardest to write about without giving away the whole thing.
“Mockingjay” is the only entry in the series in which there is more to criticize than to love, though it is still an intense and irresistible read. By now, the battle is fully engaged, with Katniss at the center. Collins, who up to this point has been unrelenting in the bleakness of her imagined world stays on the case. The questionable nature of Katniss’ fellow counter-revolutionaries, including and especially the leadership of the resistance, make clear in candid, unfortunately familiar terms that winning a war and tossing out a tyrant is not a recipe for some easy-rise utopia. The trouble is that the only outlet for this ambivalence is the increasing moodiness and anger of Katniss, who, lacking much in the way of historical perspective or studious commentary on the overturn of autocratic regimes, is limited to following in the sulky teen footsteps of Harry Potter. Her behavior swings between risking her life for people in battle, and giving them the silent treatment over some personal affront once they reach safety. Some of this is to be expected. Katniss is a child with an incredible burden to bear, including another complication in the love triangle, care of the deviant and brilliant Capitol scientists. It’s just that the fight-to-fret plot progression happens one or two times too often.
The closing chapters of the series turn the action levels to 11 as a last battle commences on, and under, the streets of the Capitol. Events here seem to have been inspired primarily by the “Saw” movie franchise, with increasingly elaborate and terrifying counter-insurgency methods around every deadly corner. The scenes are too hasty, and the inevitable loss of key characters is often overshadowed by the Capitol weaponry, which in one case is literally monstrous. At one point, I cynically began to wonder if the torturous devices unveiled would include a pair of publishing executives screaming at Katniss to hurry up and finish her fight so they can start selling books. Don’t get me wrong — I greatly value Collins’ astounding creativity with regard to the awful and sadistic, which is one of the strengths of the entire trilogy. But the battle chapters would have benefitted from more of Katniss’ emotional rawness and less of the crazy things the leaders of Panem have thought up to kill their citizens.
The gifts of The Hunger Games series return, however, at the end. We are returned to an unvarnished real-ness and a genuinely bittersweet finale that has little to do with teen angst or love triangles. It lives up to everything the trilogy has provided so far. I’m not inclined to reveal anything more, but you won’t regret finding out for yourself.