Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games Book 2) by Suzanne Collins

Katniss and Peeta have won the games, but their prize is the wrath of President Snow.  As unrest stirs in the districts, Snow makes it clear to Katniss that life as she knows it is over, and one false move means death for her and everyone she cares about.  But the pain is only starting when the "celebration" of the 75th annual games puts Katniss and Peeta in the Games for the second consecutive year--against other Games winners.  With her every move potentially a killer for those at home, is Katniss brave enough to defy the Capital and stay alive against the malice of the Snow and the deadly killers she's trapped with?  She's saved Peeta once, but doing it again might be tricky in the second book of the Hunger Games.

[Warning:  I do spoil some things here, which is unusual for me.  If you haven't read the books and want to, might be better to skip this.]

Ever tried to start a charcoal grill when it's windy?  No amount of paper or lighter fluid can help you.  It's going to take a long time to get those coals to catch, and you are liable to get extremely frustrated.  That is exactly how I felt about reading most of Catching Fire, whose title is extremely apt because the story takes about 200 pages to start getting interesting and for the fiery action to get started.

Oh sure, things happen in the first dozen or so chapters.  As with the first book, Collins is careful to explain everything and provide sufficient information so that no one can be the least bit puzzled.  The trouble is that the explanation is way too long and is even more infuriating this time, because it often takes all the suspense out of everything.  Just in case we weren't sure that there was resistance to the Capital, we get multiple pages showing us it's happening.  Just in case we weren't sure that those who help Katniss out in any way will be brutally tortured, we get not one but two instances of it.  Just in case we don't get that Katniss wants to save Peeta, Collins mentions it so many times I began to wonder if it was going to be plot point that Katniss saves herself instead.  Nope!

Now maybe I'm a bit harder to fool than most readers (I've been known to announce, mid-mystery book, "so and so did it" and be right over half the time), but a lot of the potential enjoyment I might have had out of the shock and surprise moments of Catching Fire were ruined because, for me at least, Collins was telegraphing them a mile away.  None of the big shocks, right up to the rushed reveal in the last chapter, were a surprise to me.  I called them like I was Minnesota Fats playing 8-ball for cash.

  • It's so obvious they're going to crack down on District 12, Gale's beating is inevitable, because she's not gonna harm Prim and Katniss' mom isn't doing anything illegal.
  • It's so obvious Cinna is planting defiance in Katniss' outfit from the line "I only hurt myself" that when he's taken away, it's a flat moment.
  • It's so obvious Haymitch has convinced the others to save Peeta and Katniss, because it happens so many times it's as obvious as the fact that Katniss and Peeta aren't going to die.
  • It's so obvious Johanna is saving a person she hates *I* start to hate Katniss' stupidity at not seeing it, too.
  • It's so obvious that Haymitch is scheming to take down the Capital from the moment you learn he survived the games by beating them at their own torture device that to learn there's a revolution awaiting at the end of the book is about as shocking as "there is no more District 12."

I'm really sorry if these things surprised you.  Maybe it's my fault as a reader.  Maybe I am expecting too much of a YA book.  But this book really feels like Collins is underestimating her audience.  Had she eased off on the clues or some something really out there, like keep Peeta dead, I might feel differently.

As it stands, the story is one-dimensional filler, with the most interesting parts being the diabolical creations made for the arena.  Collins is at her best when we're in the Games, and I really did think the idea of putting them in a giant circle, with conditions unfamiliar to Katniss, was a nice touch.  But then again, that's to force her to have partners, so it too, is a bit of a giant telegraph, as well as being a giant watch.  The fog was creepy and the jays calling out the tortured screams of friends and family was a nice touch.  Unfortunately, all of that was really crammed in the last 100 pages, which is a shame.  I'd have loved to see more terrors inflicted on the group.  When the characters talk about how "this is moving fast" they aren't kidding.  (Never ever let your character comment on your failings as an author.  That's a softball for any reader not enjoying themselves.)

Unlike Book 1, this volume really comes to a screeching halt, using a one-page summary of events (I kid you not) to get the reader up to speed, looking very much like plotting notes typed up and formalized and placed at the end of the book.  I'm sorry, that's lazy, sloppy writing and no editor should ever have let that pass.  It read like a comic book recap page, but instead of being helpful to anyone who came in late, it's there to tell someone who has been with the book all along what they missed while Katniss was being incredibly clueless.

I mentioned in my first review that I didn't care for Katniss as the focal character, and she's even worse here. She just acts like there isn't a brain in her head for thinking instead of acting.   Katniss can't see past the nose on her face, which is infuriating because it means Collins has to keep everything from the reader, too.  I'd have found this book a lot more interesting from Haymitch's perspective, and we could use the video of the Games to handle that section.  I get that Collins is trying to show that a girl can be the protagonist, but that's only if she's interesting.

Katniss is about as interesting as plain brown wallpaper.

Despite these problems, I do applaud Collins for trying to show some feminist tendencies in a teen character.  Unfortunately, rather than being proactive, Katniss is a reactive feminist.  "I don't want this" is fine, as she rejects the Capital, rejects the roles Gale and Peeta have for her, and rejects Haymitch for using her.  But what exactly is Katniss for?  I sure don't know.  I don't know that she does, either, and that part of why her character is lacking.  The others, who know what they want, from Snow to Cinna to even the Career tributes, are a lot more interesting as a result.

So why do The Hunger Games have so many problems?  I think I figured it out, and it didn't hit me until this book closed with the destruction of District 12:  Hunger Games is "What if Star Wars Featured Leia?"

Now, it's not fan fiction in the way that I understand 50 Shades of Gray to be.  But the concepts are extremely familiar:  A one-dimensional hero that doesn't so much fight FOR something as against it, a love triangle between a strong female and two men who are diametric opposites on the surface but are both good at the core, a ruling class that is far more technologically advanced than its citizens--except for the resistance, an unlikely alliance among disparate factions, a leader who will destroy entire planets districts to prove a point, side-character who are far more interesting than the main ones, an enigmatic mentor, and so on.

Collins is borrowing liberally from George Lucas's themes, and once I figured it out, I hit on exactly why I don't care for this story:  The more I watched Star Wars, the less I liked it.  Why would a giant tribute to that movie franchise be any different?

At first, I thought the homage to Leia and Han with Katniss' "I know" was just bad writing.  Now I see that it's part of a larger theme, which means nothing is going to get more complex or ambiguous.  The bad guys are the bad guys, the good guys are the good guys, and we'll wrap it up with hope for the future.

That's my problem with the Hunger Games.  At its core, there's no struggle, no realization that life lives in shades of gray.  I need the Roddenberry ambiguity when I read an epic story like this, and it's just not there. This book doesn't leave me fired up, it leaves me like that charcoal pit in the wind:  waiting for something to show signs of life.

Going into book three, I admit, I'm not hopeful.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Hunger Games (Book 1) by Suzanne Collins

In a dystopian United States that's been turned into districts, with a cruel capital where none with power go without, a reminder that resistance is futile happens every year: The Hunger Games.  Two teens are chosen from each district and must battle to the death to survive.  Katniss volunteers to fight to save the life of her baby sister, and eventually she's placed in a battlefield with a set of allies she's not sure she can trust, up against districts that plan to win every year.  Can Katniss survive this brutal torture, and what happens if she does?

Welcome to the series of books that completely derailed the Summer of YA.  I was warned I probably wouldn't like them, and boy were all of you right.  As I write this review, I'm about halfway through book two--and I finished book one back in June.  For the purposes of this review, I'm only going to discuss book one.

First, let me talk about what I like about this book.

  • Part of why I think it's important is that it serves as a sort of anti-Twilight.  Instead of teaching young women that they should be passive and allow men (especially older men) dominate them, Katniss is a fiery spirit, doing what *she* thinks is best and refusing to allow others to tell her what to do.  Sometimes this gets her in trouble, especially when it comes to the climax of this first volume.  But the fact that at no time does Katniss give in to the males in this world (although she learns that she does not have to do everything alone) is very important.  Like it or not, kids take ideas from the culture they're exposed to.  They internalize things.  While I am glad teens are reading 600 page novels, I do worry quite a bit about what's *inside* those novels.  The Hunger Games may not be the best written thing I've ever read, but its message is a good one, for both young women and young men.
  • Once we get into the games themselves, this book actually flows relatively well.  The scenes within the games are action-packed, and I like the fact that Collins was not afraid to hurt her two main characters and give me the impression right up until the very end that they could die.  Similarly, anyone who the reader might care about could also get the ax at any moment.
  • The sadism of the Hunger Games themselves comes across very well.  From the opening dash for supplies to the placement of water only in such a way that the fighters must battle to keep it to the ending, where the losers of the game are brought back in a horrific manner that actually terrified me just a bit, Collins does a really nice job of showing just how awful this is.
  • There's a clear indication that a deep divide in wealth is not only disgusting, but it's a moral wrong.  I know my politics are on my sleeve with this one (and the next point), but the fact is, while we don't make poor people battle for the right to have food for a year--yet--the Capital is not that far off from how the uber-rich live in this country while people in the streets try to scrape along, with costs rising and jobs growing ever more scarce.  I know Collins based the Capital on Rome, but the decadence of the Roman elite is not any different from hearing about movie stars and politicians with multiple homes and a dozen bathrooms and other things that make me want to puke when I have students who can't afford a meal but don't qualify for reduced lunch.
  • Katniss wants control of her body.  Collins may not refer to reproductive rights directly, but it's clear there's an allusion to it if you read carefully.  Katniss dislikes having the designers try to make her look more feminine, is horrified that they wanted to give her implants, and talks about how she does not want to bring kids into the world, even if that's what is expected of her.  Showing that these decisions should be up to Katniss and not the (male) power structure is another thing I liked.
So that's good stuff, right?  Well, unfortunately, there's also one heck of a lot that's wrong, and I just can't get past them to make this a book I'd re-read.  Over time, they're making it so I can barely finish the trilogy.
  • The opening is one of the worst I've ever read.  I know that there's a desperate fight for life, but it's 130 pages (out of 370) before I get there.  That's just too damned long.  I understand the need to world-build (but that has its issues, see below), but Collins is pedantic and methodical in her approach, working slowly until we get to the good stuff.  I probably would have given up, except that I really wanted to know this book inside and out before teaching again, so we can discuss it in class.
  • The book is written like she's reading over my shoulder.  Countless times, Collins takes pains to explain *exactly* how something is possible or how it works.  It's like she's afraid I might not believe part of the narrative if every set-up is not given careful detailing in advance.  Yes, in some cases, we do need to know information for a payoff later, but she does it way too much.  It feels like she wants to be there to say, "See?  I told you all about the changing environment so you'd never question when it happens later!  Isn't that great?"  Given the wonders we have in the Hunger Games world, I think I would have bought that--and many other--ideas she painstakingly explains.
  • Despite all this explanation, there are two problems that just sink the book for me.  Issue one is that her characters are less fleshed out than the world is.  I just don't care about Katniss.  She's boring.  She's Cyclops when I want to read about Wolverine.  She's Hal Jordan instead of Guy Gardner or John Stewart.  To move to a literary comparison, she's Harker instead of Van Helsing.  Katniss is portrayed as having only one major flaw, which is that she doesn't always think long-term.  That's boring.  She's not selfish, jealous, funny, or anything that could get me to care.  That goes double for Gale, which makes the love triangle fall flat as a pancake.  I spent most of the games worrying more for Peeta, who shows a depth of character that Katniss lacks.  I know Katniss is the narrator, so we learn less about her directly, but she's so much of a blank slate here (we know more of what she doesn't want than what she does) that it hurts the book.
  • The biggest flaw, however, is that despite all the explanations, this world just doesn't hold up on its face.  The Capital has everything it could ever want, which it gets from the districts.  Okay, I am down with that so far.  But the level of tech they have is just impossible.  America is back to the 19th Century everywhere BUT the Capital.  That's fine, I got it.  The problem is that the Capital is not only modern, it's futuristic.  There's no reference to anyone making transistors or computer chips in one of the districts--which would be a must if the Capital even matched 21st Century tech.  Yet somehow, these people have showers not even Bill Gates can design or own that will change on command.  They can terraform at will.  They can make a package appear in the middle of nowhere and broadcast movies in the sky.  These people have miniature flying saucers yet we're told they have to have coal from District 12.  It just doesn't add up.  Despite all of Collins' explanations, there's no explaining how the tech is so high if the regions supporting the non-working Capital are providing raw material only.
I am a person with a low bar for suspension of disbelief.  I read comic books, where irradiated spiders don't kill the people they bite.  But there has to be an internal logic within whatever crazy stuff you're asking the reader to go along with.  I know that Collins wanted to show how opulent the Capital was, but she takes it too far.  Every time something uber-technological happened, I was thrown right out of the book trying to figure out how in the hell it was possible based on the resources known to me as the reader.

Maybe that's something the last two books will explain, but I kinda doubt it, based on my reading of book two so far.  While I am happy kids are reading and while I know there is YA material that works for teens and adults, The Hunger Games just isn't that kind of book.  It's fine as a surface read, but when you start to think too hard, it falls apart quickly.  (Maybe that's why, in a disposable culture, the book succeeds.  No one else but me is examining it out.)  Since it reads so slowly, it invites thinking--and when you think too hard, there's just a whole host of problems.  If you haven't read the Hunger Games by now, don't.  You aren't missing anything.