Note: I’m still experimenting with how best to write about books without reading spoilers. I think I’ve largely managed to do that here, but if you don’t want to know anything about the series other than whether it’s worth reading, the answer is yes.
I just spent the last week reading The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It’s the first time I’ve read three books in a week since I was a teenager and didn’t really have much to do with my free time other than read books for hours on end… but this tale was so engaging I found myself making time to read, during lunch breaks, before bed, before dinner — I couldn’t put the books down.
That’s largely because Collins does a great job of pacing her story. Each book has 27 chapters divided into 3 sections per book. So it doesn’t take long to finish a chapter, and more often than not you’re faced with a cliffhanger at the end which makes you want to extend that lunch break until you read just a little more so you can find out what happens next.
The characters are also all very alive… until they’re not, and then sometimes they’re even more alive in the reader’s mind. There’s a lot of death in these books, which isn’t surprising because it’s a series about war, starting with aftermath of a war that had led people to do atrocious things to other human beings and later about another war… which doesn’t seem much better even if the cause seems more noble.
Collins’s books present a coming of age story in a post-apocalyptic world where there’s no such thing as a happy ending. It’s sort of what you would get if you crossed Harry Potter with The Handmaid’s Tale and throw in a bit of Lord of the Flies and the reality TV show Survivor as well as a healthy dose of criticism of said reality TV culture.
That might not sound like the sort of thing that’d make for a fun read, and maybe it isn’t. But it’s engrossing.
As we follow the protagonist Katniss Everdeen through the story, it becomes more and more clear that while she’s the heroine of the story, she’s also the victim — and nothing that happens will change that. It’s all the more tragic because she’s clearly operating at the center of the conflict and on the sidelines at the same time.
As a 16 and 17 year old, she’s a pawn in a game that she barely understands. She’s a fighter, and a survivor and from time to time she has flashes of charisma and brilliance that bind the characters around her (and the reader) to Katniss… but she also makes rash decisions, jumps to conclusions that are often wrong, and leads us on a journey that could turn out so many different ways that it should probably come as no surprise when Collins concludes the story in a totally unsatisfying but completely logical way.
Following the story from Katniss’s perspective, reading her thoughts, it’s hard not to feel like a confused teenager reading the story — but it’s hard to imagine anyone thrown into the bloody world of the Hunger Games making any more sense of the situation, be they 16 or 60.
Part of what makes the story work, and makes the plot twists so unpredictable is that we’re following Katniss down every wrong turn she makes… because they make sense, while the situations she finds herself in don’t.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading these books — although I probably could have lived without the love triangle that felt kind of unnecessary to the plot.
How many people do you know that meet their true soulmates as a teenager? Yes, extreme conditions lead to extreme emotions, so I suppose Harry and Ginny really could spend the rest of their lives happily together after defeating Voldemort, and I suppose it’s possible that Katniss could find love, comfort, and maybe even some happiness with Gale or Peeta… but while boys are fawning over Katniss she spends much of the story not even bothering to examine her own feelings because she’s got better things to do, like feeding her family, trying to stay alive, or fighting to the death.
So the growing tension over which boy she’ll choose that grows as the series reaches its conclusion feels kind of superfluous. It doesn’t exactly ruin the story, but by the end, you can’t help but feel that the romance was more of an afterthought than anything.