December 12, 2010


by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press

A review of the current Big Thing,
How I Learned to Stop Totalitarian Governments and Love the Fashion Designer

by SF Winser

This is it. What's the next Harry Potter/Twilight/YA-to-adult crossover? This is. This.

My normal thing would be to go through the books, describe them, add a few thoughts and then sum up – but these books work much better if about the only thing you know about them is that they're a decent read, a tad on the violent side. So here's my summation upfront: If you're curious about these books, go ahead. Prepare for blood, a bit of thoughtfulness and to be a touch ahead of the hype-curve. They're exciting, emotionally-based YA set in a pretty freaky sci-fi/fantasy society. It is traditional for any breakthrough novel to be panned as 'bad writing' the moment any sort of popularity gets going. These are not bad writing. Perhaps not Pulitzer/Booker/Nobel level, but often poetic and structurally balanced. So when the inevitable bashing begins, ignore it. Now stop reading the rest of this. What follows is as spoiler free as possible, but I will be discussing things from books 2 and 3 of which it's best to be ignorant if going into book 1.

Now subtextually, thematically.... Meh. There's some really interesting stuff going on about the way propaganda works, the way people manipulate or are manipulated but there's never the feeling that these elements are properly gelled into a coherent direction. Propaganda is dangerous, and can be used for good or ill, but will burn those who use it. That's the biggest message. Except that the heroic way the main character is treated for being instinctively great at manipulating emotion, the way it saves her life and helps free her people... The pain propaganda brings is almost seen as worthwhile. Yes, being used as a propaganda tool and the head of a revolution screws Katniss up – pretty much to the point where, by the end of the trilogy, she's barely even a sympathetic protagonist. By the end, I didn't actually like her as a person any more – but she does meet (most) of her goals. One could read these novels as anti-war, anti-propaganda. But they could equally be read as the idea that propaganda and war are dangerous and nasty and demand sacrifice, yet are necessary and often effective. It's not quite clear.

There's an annoying thread of the IMPORTANCE of FASHION and, OMG! I'M CHANGING THE WORLD BY BEING PRETTY AND WELL-DRESSED! SQUEEE! Seriously, one of the major secondary characters and 'heroic martyr' is a fashion designer. In books about image and its manipulation, this kinda works, but I couldn't shake the cynical thought that the focus on clothes for entire sections of the trilogy were deliberate, patronising sops to the intended YA female audience. I hope that I'm wrong.

But, I'm nitpicking. Here we have a trilogy of books that are fun to read. They are full of action, but focus mainly on emotion. That's not a half-bad achievement. We are thrust into a hellish reality-show where twelve people – children – enter a specially designed arena full of traps and genetically-modified animals and kill each other until only one is left. If they win, their families are provided for for their whole lives and their towns get more than starvation rations for a whole year. It's like the premise of a bad Twilight-Zone episode, or that old Schwarzenegger movie 'The Running Man'. However, Collins focuses the narrative almost completely on the emotion, the fear, the connections between the contestants and the undercurrent of political menace. And still keeps the action mostly believable and exciting.

By book three ('Mockingjay') the war of independence has started. And so comes the second biggest nitpick I have: To keep the structural elements of 'Hunger Games' in all three novels, the war and invasion on the capital becomes... well... stupid. The traps and so forth used in the defence of the capital are – I hate the word repeat, but there it is – stupid. One should not laugh during the action scenes. Rather than, you know, buying guns 'n' soldiers 'n' shit, let's spend billions of man hours creating the war equivalent of whoopie cushions and awkward trapdoors that are built in secret, despite requiring engineering and architectural work that would be beyond even the most skilled builders with infinite resources and might mildly inconvenience attacking forces and could only be built without the public noticing if the public were brain-damaged, drugged and tied up in a basement while blindfolded. (Some of these defence 'pods' are pretty damn lethal, but many are dumb, dumb, silly and dumb. Downright inefficient and ridiculous. One could retcon reasons why this is the case, but those reasons don't work for me.)

The teen boy who first recommended these books to me had a great note: 'She said everything she needed to say in book one'. If Collins had a few inserted chapters and an epilogue in book one, I think I'd agree. This is not to say that the final two books are bad. Not at all. They're still good bits of entertainment and do follow a very determined arc... But they do tend to be a touch superfluous. The story continues, the world is fleshed out and Katniss's influence grows. We come to a specific resolution. But I think a lack of resolution would have been fine in this world. I also could have done without the originally quite sympathetic main character becoming a self-loathing, hypocritical bitch before the end. Sure, thematically relevance could be argued, but the theme would need more clarity for that to be a convincing discussion. Even so, it's very hard to justify turning your main character into such annoying bint while there are still so many chapters worth of reading to go. Despite all the effort of getting through two-and-a-bit rather thick books, I had to convince myself to keep going on a tale where most of the likable characters were by now either dead, insane or lost in moral grey areas. I really didn't need the main character to follow them to Depressing Hypocritical Bitchland. There's a big risk that the reader will just.



So I've spent more time whinging than praising, but let me reiterate: Decent action. High tension. Lots of well-handled emotion. The Hunger Games trilogy is a fun, if sometime harrowing, reading experience. There are more than enough ideas to keep them from becoming simple pulp. These are standout books that are resonating with many teens and many, many adults and with good reason. Those choosing to leap into the hype-wave will have a nice ride.

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