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.

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