Science fiction and fantasy
The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
Katniss is barely scratching a living when it comes time for the annual Hunger Games selection. This is a barbaric ritual in which twenty-four young people between the ages of twelve and eighteen are pitted against each other in a televised fight to the death. When her younger sister Prue is chosen to be one of the tributes, Katniss doesn't think twice before volunteering to go in her place.
Katniss is pretty handy with a bow thanks to a sideline in illicit hunting which she uses to feed her family, but she expects to die in the arena because several of the other tributes have trained for years to be in the games. The other tribute from her district, Peeta, is someone she barely knows beyond the fact that his family are bakers. Their mentor, Haymitch, is a former victor of the games, but he's also a drunk who doesn't seem to have much helpful advice for them.
The games are interesting for the circus that surrounds them as well as their bloodthirsty action. There's a brutal contrast between the fashion-obsessed Capitol and everywhere else, and the characters in the Capitol are a mixture of scheming politicians, air-headed stylists, and oppressed servants. Like much dystopian fiction the story has an overt moral message, and its critique of inequality is hard to miss. Many of the characters in the Capitol take Roman-style names, just in case we missed the parallels between gladiators in ancient Rome and the Hunger Games arena. So maybe it is heavy-handed with its message, but this is another example of Suzanne Collins breaking a rule and getting away with it, because the political side of this novel doesn't seem preachy thanks to the story's fast pace.
Katniss is likeable because on one level she's just another person trying to survive, so she's almost an everywoman. She starts out by acting heroically when she volunteers to be in the games, but once in the arena she isn't especially ruthless or strong. Katniss doesn't start out as a warrior or a Robin Hood figure, despite the imagery of her with the bow, so she's all the more relatable.
There's a hint of romance between Katniss and Peeta, but it's a very ambiguous one which seems like an act for the cameras at the start. Peeta's motivations appear mysterious, so there's also the added tension over whether he's a friend or foe. The upshot is that the tragedy and life-or-death action overshadow any subplots about love. Katniss is too busy surviving and adapting to the possibility of imminent death to give much thought to young men.
Katniss seems to be quite good at lying to herself, and she's not a very introspective character. Even though we have an insight into her thoughts she's not an open book. So there's plenty to keep readers guessing throughout this fast-paced story. I practically inhaled this novel. The political themes give it a sharp edge, and it's full of powerful moments which bring home the injustices in Panem society. In a chapter before the games start, Katniss is trying to get rich sponsors of the games to notice her so that they'll send her gifts when she's in the arena, and they're all ignoring her. This is more profound than it first appears, because the people in the Capitol don't see her, so they don't care whether she lives or dies. Although it's only a short incident, it could stand for the blindness of most people in the Capitol, and their uncaring attitude to everyone in the districts. I found The Hunger Games politically charged and very moving, proof that sometimes the best way to win in literature is to write your own rules.
26th December 2014
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Review © Ros Jackson
Source: own copy
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