Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Hunger Games

Before I get into a review of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, I must recount a horrifying experience I had while buying its sequel at a northern California Barnes & Noble. I rarely venture into the young adult section of the bookstore, both because I'm not a young adult (at least not in the way the bookstores mean, and admittedly, only barely by any other definition) and because I don't like rubbing elbows, noses, and other potentially snotty body parts with whiny twelve-year-olds and their harassed parents. That said, I wanted to read Catching Fire, and to the YA section I had to go.

Before my bulging eyes and dropping jaw, there was the umpteenth sign of the coming literary apocalypse: four entire sections devoted to "Teen Paranormal Romance." For readers blessedly unaware of what this term means, it refers to Twilight and other, similar books in which jailbait virgins lust after centuries-old bloodsucking vampires* and hairy-backed werewolves with attitude problems**. Stupidly, I didn't take a picture, but another blogger did (thank you, madam) - so here's proof, although the photo only shows three sections, rather than the four I saw. (Perhaps this blogger patronizes a slightly better Barnes & Noble than I do.)

I don't even want to think about what this means for the youth of today. Also, get off my lawn.

So, The Hunger Games. My cousin gave me this book for Christmas, with a slightly apologetic air of "I know you will have to venture into the local bookstore's YA heart of darkness to get the sequels to this book." She and her husband had both read the first one, gotten hooked, and polished off the two sequels in record time. She figured she might as well make me do the same.

Having read the first two within a couple of days, I now understand why. To her credit, Collins is one of the few writers who can pull off present-tense fiction - or pull it off just enough that blood doesn't burst from my retinas. She's clearly tried to craft an edge-of-your-seat story, and the present tense does pull the reader through the book with a certain amount of immediacy.

The series takes place in a fictional future North America ruled by a totalitarian government based in (I think) Colorado. Collins isn't terribly clear about the history of the place, at least not in book one, but basically, there are twelve districts, with two through twelve ruled by district one, a place of sybaritic luxury where the citizens are entirely out of touch with the hardships endured by people in the other eleven districts.*** There was a thirteenth district; at some point, its people rebelled, and it is believed that it was bombed out of existence. Or was it?

Our heroine, Katniss, fits perfectly into the kick-ass-babe trope that's become extremely popular in both fiction and film of recent years. She's tough, and tomboyish, and practical, and a whiz with a bow and arrow, and the head of her family since her father died, and so on. Not too much originality there, sad to say. She's sixteen when the story starts.

Within the first couple of chapters of the book, we learn that district one enforces an annual gladiatorial competition, with two young people, one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, chosen from each district but district one each year to fight to the death on television. This is both entertainment (mainly for district one) and punishment: a reminder to the districts that the government has ultimate power over the fates of all.

The opening of the book also sets up a love triangle, something that is apparently now de rigeur for YA fiction - see Twilight. There's Katniss's best friend, a brooding, laconic sort with a wounded soul or something, who's clearly in love with her from the get-go, and the guy she goes off to the Hunger Games with (because of course she does), who's neither brooding nor laconic, but is also clearly in love with her from the get-go.

Which leads me right into my main problem with this book: the heroine. And that's a big problem, since she's the first-person present tense viewpoint character, and oh boy, you'd better like someone you're going to spend that much quality time with. The problem is, she's just not that smart. I'd be okay with that if it weren't for Collins's bad (and amateurish) habit of using this as a plot point. When she doesn't want to reveal something to the readers too quickly, she uses Katniss's lack of comprehension to hide it, simultaneously trying to hint to us that Katniss really isn't that dumb: she's tired, or she has preconceived notions, or she's too focused on trying to stay alive to just use her damn brain for once. Collins doesn't realize you can't have smart protagonist cake and eat it too: either the main character is actually smart, and the readers just have to be given information a lot sooner, or she isn't. Collins took the lazy way out, because the novel would need to be much more tightly plotted - and have more real suspense, rather than suspense artificially created by dumb-heroine syndrome - if Katniss was truly intelligent.

End rant, but Katniss's flaws leave me wondering why both of these guys, who are smarter, and more appealing in their own ways (wounded souls or not) than the heroine is, would be so incredibly crazy about her. Willing to die for her, even. We can only assume that Katniss is really hot.

Lest you think that I hated this book, let me add: I didn't. I did go out and buy the second in the trilogy, and I do intend to read the third once I can find it used. The combat arena in which the Hunger Games are held really kept me reading. It's a neat concept; the whole place is rigged with booby-traps and manipulated with usually deadly effect by the game designers, and some of the technological concepts behind it all are cool. But my eagerness to get the third book is currently held in check by my lack of sympathy for the main character.

The second book is a little bit of a first-book redux, putting Katniss and Smitten Swain #2 back into another arena to fight to the death, again. There are a few more complications, as the districts are beginning to rebel, and the government wants Katniss dead for real this time - she's apparently become the rebellion's mascot, for reasons it would spoil the first book to explain. In the third book - and no spoilers here, because I haven't even read a summary of it - I fully expect district one to be overthrown, justice to ensue, and Katniss to choose one of her boyfriends over the other. Or maybe they'll just all die, for a refreshing change of pace.

I give The Hunger Games two stars overall, but four within its genre, which I will define as "Teen Non-Paranormal Romance." Okay, two and a half stars overall, but mainly because so many characters died in that awesome arena.

* I can completely understand this dark, verging-on-S&M fantasy - vampires are one of the more inherently sexy myths out there. But in the context of horny adolescent girls, it's more than a little repellent. Also, am I the only one disturbed by a man hundreds of years old being attracted to a teenager? It's not socially acceptable for a thirty-year-old guy to date a seventeen-year-old girl, but if his age is in the triple digits, suddenly it's okay again? What gives? Is every pedophile out there now just counting down the days until he turns 100? (That's probably enough rhetorical questions for one day.)

** And this fantasy, I just don't get. At all.

*** I'm not even going to bother with the obvious political messages in The Hunger Games.

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