Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Hunger Games Series

Quite often I read two books at the same time; one I keep upstairs for reading at bedtime or while I'm blow drying my hair (I hold the book open with my toes and dry my hair more or less upside down) and the other I keep downstairs for reading during the odd moments that I'm not doing something else. This only works, however, if the two books are about equally interesting. When I started Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, it was my downstairs book. But then it started migrating upstairs with me, and then I just had to stop everything and finish it because it was just. that. good.

Collins is a veteran writer and I greatly enjoyed her Gregor the Overlander books, so I expected this one to be good. I did not expect to be carried away by it to the point that I almost couldn't bear to make dinner because I was frantic to find out what happened next.

Katniss Everdeen lives in a post-apocalyptic North America in which the the country has been divided into 13 districts, all subjugated by The Capitol. Except for District 13, which has been obliterated by the Capitol in reprisal for their rebellion. As part of their subjugation, each district must send tributes -- a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 17 -- to participate in the Hunger Games each year. Games in which the tributes must fight to the death. By this means does the Capitol exercise its power over the districts. This year, Katniss's 12 year old sister, Prim, is chosen. Unhesitatingly, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

The rest is a roller coaster ride of strategy, stylists, ambushes, alliances and lots and lots of death. I'm not going to explain the details, only say that once Katniss enters the arena, I defy you to put this book down until you've seen it through to the end. There are classical echos here: it brings to mind the Athenian tributes sent to face the Minotaur, and the gladiators who fought each other in ancient Rome. Many of the characters have Latin names, so the parallel isn't accidental. The entire society of the Capitol is a bizarre blend of frivolity and violence -- one minute people are dying their hair purple and tattooing themselves, the next they're screaming for blood during the games.

The second book, Catching Fire, which deals with uprisings throughout the districts, is even more absorbing than the first, which makes it breathtakingly good. Unfortunately, I now have to wait until August -- AUGUST! -- for the third book, Mockingjay, to come out. I'm not sure I can make it that long.

They are violent books -- the premise is such that they can hardly be anything else -- but there's real poignancy and pathos in most of the deaths. And beyond the violence, the books are thought-provoking in a timely way. The terrible waste of life and the terrible cruelty of the Capitol serve as backdrop for Katniss's coming of age, in which she is forced to weigh issues many people never face. At what point does life become so terrible that rebellion is preferable to living? These are for Junior High and up, because of their violent nature, but don't let the violence cause you to pass these by. They are truly, among the best books I've ever had the good fortune to read.

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