Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a young adult book, the first in a trilogy (books one and two have been published, book three is expected in 2010).  I recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest, tiniest, vaguest interest in YA literature.  If normally you avoid YA books like the plague but you loved Harry Potter, give The Hunger Games a try.  Not because they are at all similar.  They aren't.  Just because if you can approach one children's book with an open mind, there's reason to believe you could do it again.  If you thought Harry Potter was silly...well, that's one thing The Hunger Games isn't.  It's a grim sandwich, with a side of more grim, and an icy glass of grim to wash it all down with.  And that's only a slight exaggeration.

So far I've convinced two people to read it, and they both loved it.  One of them told me - and I quote - that it's the best thing she's read since East of Eden (she read East of Eden about a year ago, not, like, three weeks ago).

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future, in a country called Panem.  Panem is in North America, what used to be the United States, but history doesn't reach that far back anymore.  Power and plenty are concentrated in the Capitol, the seat of government, while citizens in the twelve outlying districts are worked to the bone, denied the most basic freedoms, and forced to participate in the yearly Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games seamlessly marry punishment and entertainment.  Every year, two young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each of the twelve outlying districts by lottery and forced to compete in a battle to the death.  Twenty-four contestants - called Tributes - enter the arena, but only one will leave it alive.  The event is tarted up with a lot of pageantry, taped and broadcast in an edited form over the state-controlled TV station.  The arena where they compete changes every year - sometimes it's a desert, sometimes a jungle, sometimes a waterworld.  The Tributes don't find out what the arena will look like until they enter it, and those who refuse to participate in the bloodbath don't get very far - the Gamemakers can engineer environmental disasters, like a blistering volcano, to get rid of people who won't play along.

Like I said, pretty grim. And yet - this is part of the book's insidious charm - it's a lot of fun to read.  The pacing of the book is amazing, and the protagonist grabbed my heart and ran away with it from the first page.  Collins tricks the reader into participating in exactly the behavior the book is engineered to, it's not original, but the technique is put to good use here.

Collins eases us into the story.  We start reading about Katniss, a girl-child who keeps her family from starving by illegally hunting game and trading it on the black market for bare necessities.  It's a hard-scrabble life, but it's not all bleak: she spends her days wandering the woods with her handsome friend Gale, and evenings with her sweet, 12 year old sister Prim.

But as a reader, you know things are going to change, so even these early passages have an edge of menace.  The yearly lottery arrives, and Katniss ends up in the games.  She's sent to the Capitol to prepare, but her visit there is full of fun and luxury. She eats fine food, she marvels at advanced technology she's never seen before, she meets her stylist. The sharp, menacing atmosphere thickens - but so does the crazy, unreal showmanship of it all.

And then the Hunger Games start.  I got to like Katniss so much that the idea of seeing her hurt, or being right there with her on the page as she hurt someone else, became almost unbearable. Of course, both of my fears came true. But Collins kept pulling me along, interspersing scenes of real horror with calmer, sweeter interludes. I had time to catch my breath and brace myself before the next onslaught, much like Katniss does. The tension ratchets up steadily, page by page, while the progress of the Games sends the reader veering about wildly on an emotional roller coaster, full of highs and lows.

The book is great because it's got so much more to offer than a heart-in-your-throat adrenaline rush.  There's the political aspect, especially the government's media savvy.  It's like Soviet propaganda if it were re-tooled by a bunch of Hollywood marketing execs.  And the experience of the Tributes is an obvious commentary on reality TV.  Not only does Katniss doubt everyone around her, she can't trust her own feelings: is she brave, or is she faking it for the camera?  Does she care about her allies in the arena, or does she just want them to think she cares?  She doesn't know, and the confusion does real damage to her sense of who she is.

The Hunger Games is a thought-provoking book wrapped up in a gripping adventure story.  I couldn't put it down once I'd started, and I've had some great discussions about it since.  In short, read it.

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