The Hunger Games – Book 1

See my intro.

The Hunger Games starts off in a dystopian future where much of the world is decimated by… something.  One of the strengths here is that the author doesn’t go out of her way to explain things that really don’t matter.  Leaving some things to the imagination is a plus, especially in a young adult book.

Anyway, the known world is Panem, which is basically North America.  No reference is made to anything outside of this area.  Panem is composed of a central Capitol and twelve districts.  I view it as a hub-and-spokes design, though I can’t remember if that is ever explicitly stated or it was just my interpretation.  Regardless, the Capitol is somewhere in the Rockies, and District 12, our heroine’s home, is somewhere in Appalachia.

The back story is that about 75 years ago, there was an uprising in the districts (which are poor and oppressed).  Once the Capitol successfully squashed the uprising, they created The Hunger Games.  In this scenario, one boy and one girl from each district is selected each year to compete in a Thunderdome-esque battle to the death.  24 children enter, one child leaves.  The idea is that it is a continual reminder of the power the Capitol wields, and of the people who were killed in the insurrection.

Minor Plot Spoilers Below

Unsurprisingly, Katniss ends up in the games, but only after volunteering to take the place of her sister, Prim.  Her male compatriot is Peeta Mellark, a schoolmate with whom she shares an unspoken history.  In almost stereotypical fashion, he has an unrequited love for her, whereas she feels like she owes him for a silent favor years back.

Through the preparations for the games, Katniss does her best to develop a strategy for survival.  She does her best to stay solo, but once the games start she finds herself paired with a small girl, Rue, who reminds her of Prim.  When Rue is eventually taken down, Katniss covers her in flowers and sings to her, an act which the Capitol views as defiance.

At one point during the games, the announcer declares that there may be two victors this year, provided they are both from the same district.  Few remaining competitors meet this criteria, but Katniss immediately begins seeking out Peeta, who has been critically wounded.  This sets up the beginning of a potentially real relationship that she doesn’t quite know how to interpret.

Of course they end up winning, at which point the announcers claim that the rules are back to normal and only one may survive.  In another act of personal defiance turned political, she holds up poisonous berries that she and Peeta begin to eat.  The announcers panic and end the games, rescuing both of them.  The book ends on a semi-cliffhanger, leaving the reader wondering where we go from here.  However, it wraps up well enough to be a story in and of itself.

End Minor Plot Spoilers

Apart from the plot, one of the interesting things is that the protagonist is a female.  That in and of itself isn’t all that interesting, but how this information is revealed was novel.  For the first chunk, you’re not quite sure the character’s gender, and then offhand comments begin to get made regarding a dress, or a marriage.  The book is amazingly gender-neutral throughout, to the point where I don’t honestly know what gender some of the minor characters (such as the Katniss’s prep team) were.  Gender is noted here and there, but never emphasized as an asset or a detriment, and when the females do well in the combat situations it is never met with surprise.  It’s so subtle that I don’t think most people will even notice, but I think it’s done almost perfectly.

I loved the theme that is carried through the entire novel, even if it’s been done expertly in the past (see The Lord of the Rings):  you can’t go home again.  With each life-changing event, there is never a sense of “Ok, if I can just get through this, everything will be fine.”  Everything will, at best, be survivable.  I was also quite pleasantly surprised when this carried through the series as a whole, though I’ll get into that later.

Some of the characters were a little flat, but this fits with Katniss’s mostly-detached personality.  I don’t know if this was intentional or happy coincidence, but it works in most cases.  The only times it felt odd was with Prim and Katniss’s mother.  Neither of those characters felt as fleshed-out as I would have liked, but it makes some sense in that they were more caricatures of traits than active characters.

As I mentioned before, where this really succeeds is the story.  The simplistic language plus the constant plot advancement makes for a great page-turner.  I tend to read mainly on my morning and evening commutes, but I found myself reading in the evenings sitting at home as well.  The twists and turns are rarely surprisingly, but they’re played well enough that it doesn’t matter.

Continued in Part 2 and Part 3.

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