Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review - The Hunger Games

I'd heard the hype about Hunger Games since before its release and it continued to gain momentum and discussion around the web. Cautiously avoiding spoilers, I grabbed hold of a general synopsis and quickly got the feeling that this is a book I would enjoy. I'm generally a fan of books set in dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic futures. I also really enjoy the sort of man vs. man struggles like those portrayed here…where the struggle isn't one caused by "normal" motivations but rather through some sort of contrived situation.

To those unfamiliar with the plot of this book…it's set in the future after the general downfall of American government. The country is now divided into specific Districts, each of which is responsible for producing a certain type of good or service for the good of the nation and especially for the good of the Capitol. Our main character (a teenage girl named Katniss) is from District 12, where they are responsible for coal production.

The Capitol has a set of very stringent rules regarding any sort of mobility (essentially you're born, live and die within your District and it's unlikely you'll ever see outside of the fences surrounding it), the management, production and sale of goods…particularly food. Most citizens receive barely enough food to survive and even then it's only through hard work and ingenuity that they can provide for themselves and their families.

Because of an uprising, the Capitol has instituted The Hunger Games. These "games" take place each year and each district is required to send two teenage participants aged 12-18, one male and one female. The participants, called tributes, from each district are taken to a previously undisclosed location and required to fight to the death. The last tribute alive is declared the victor and returns to his or her district not only with the honor of winning, but also with the reward of being financially "taken care of" for the rest of their life…being put up in a great home and provided with money, food, etc to ensure their comfort. Our protagonist, Katniss, becomes the female tribute from District 12.

The premise itself is an intriguing combination of a number of elements I've seen and enjoyed from other books and stories. The system of selecting the tributes reminded me of the short story The Lottery. The general layout of Districts and order of government reminded me of a variety of 'end of days' books. The fight to the death concept reminded me of ancient Roman gladiators or other similar events where participants are required to kill each other at the whim of the controlling government. While these elements were familiar, the way they were put together made the story fresh and enticing.

The language was fluid and engaging. The target audience is teenagers or young adults, so I expected a fairly easy read. At the same time, the author didn't "talk down" to the reader in any way or pull her punches. On the contrary, she accepted the reader as an equal by providing a quick, smart, tight narrative.

Some of the characters were a little flat, but that was mostly only true of some of the almost faceless tributes that Katniss encounters or the nearly caricaturized people she meets once she arrives in the capitol. I thought the overall characterization was done very well with the exception that through the first few pages (either due to writing or due to my reading too quickly), I thought the narrator was a male rather than our female protagonist. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the characters.

The world that was created was also very intriguing. We begin in District 12 and specifically within the Seam which is the poorest part of the district. While the language and descriptions were fairly modern, the overall feel of the district could easily have been late 19th or early 20th century. Only small evidence exists that we're in modern (not even future) times such as the electrified fence surrounding the district. As we learn more about the community, it's evident that some industrialization has happened since there is talk of trains and other motorized vehicles. But it takes quite a few pages before we're fully aware that we're in an "advanced" future complete with hovercrafts and large scale projection screens that can cover the sky.

I loved the juxtaposition of the poor and degrading District 12 alongside the decadent effulgence of the highly modern Capitol. Truly it was as amazing to the reader as it was to Katniss just how different the two disparate areas were. It also spoke well to the hypocritical and contradictory nature of those governing the land. A theme that became a strong thread in the book.

The intrigue and potential conspiracy or collusion was a lot of fun to follow along and was very compelling to me. I was hoping for more of it, but the man vs man battle of the games didn't provide a ton of opportunity for this. I expect a bit more plotting and scheming in the next book.

The actual Games was a fun adventure. The preparations leading up to the games were rather interesting as each tribute was presented to the world and then trained and prepared to fight to the death. I loved following Katniss through the strange terrain. Again, we were pulled back into a non-futuristic world as the kids ran through forests, streams and mountains. At the same time, we were frequently reminded of the high-tech society whether through the projections in the sky or the high-tech gadgets and medicine provided to the kids. One of my favorite elements was near the end when Katniss encounters the muttations. I really liked the depth and intrigue of those creatures.

If you can't tell by now, I really enjoyed this book. It was a fairly quick read that didn't get too terribly deep. And yet, it provided plenty of food for thought about the way we deal with those around us, the things we take for granted and the things we overthink. It provides a fun and intriguing social commentary worth thinking about. Probably the biggest downside for me was the way it actually ended which isn't a super tense cliffhanger but still leaves you intently wondering what's going to happen next. Fortunately for me, the second book is already out so I won't have to wait ages for it to be written. For those who hate cliffhangers, don't worry too much…the Games come to an end and most things are wrapped up. The "cliffhanger" has to do with some of the events that happened in the Games which have the great potential to instigate change within the Districts and the Capitol and which are poised to explode shortly following the final page.

Definitely recommended. Enjoy it.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Tales of Whimsy said...

I seriously love this series!