Recently, a friend's 8th grade daughter levied her criticism on the first Hunger Games book thusly (to paraphrase): "If it's going to be sci-fi, it should be good sci-fi." , and then went and buried her head back in Crime and Punishment.
Clearly, my taste is far less discerning as I liked both the first and second installments in the series (for some background, take a look at my previous posts). I thought the second book was particularly wonderful, with its intelligent and heartbreaking depiction of how the powerless and disgruntled fare in a totalitarian regime (hint: not well). I was also taken with the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, and the way in which Collins has her functioning in her increasingly complicated and distressing circumstances in the post-apocalyptic country of Panem (obviously the remains of the United States). She's someone who has never had the opportunity to be a child: she's been looking after her family since she was little, and has all the attendant anxiety and guilt that level of early responsibility brings. She's not a hero because she's decreed as special by some outside agency (see: Harry Potter, the abysmal Alchemyst books, Star Wars, even my beloved Buffy), she's not "The One". She's thrown into the voracious media spotlight of her society through lottery, and becomes a media darling because of her own tenacity to survive and through exhibiting an unusual integrity during the Hunger Games in book one. She becomes in the second book, Catching Fire, the symbol of dissent, something she never asked for and finds dangerous as it places her family and district in jeopardy as the iron fist of the state comes crashing down on them. This is wonderful, potent stuff.
As the third book, Mockingjay, opens, the poor districts of Panem are in open rebellion against the wealthy Capital. Katness is in hiding with the leaders of the rebellion in the previously thought destroyed and empty 13th District. In actuality, the rebels of the 13th are allowed to survive because they are locked in a nuclear detente with the Capital. The leaders of the rebel forces know Katniss is a potent symbol and use her celebrity to propagandize their cause. One thing that I absolutely adore about these books is the moral complexity in terms of the politics. The rebel forces are terrifying, in their own way, as much as the decadent, slave based government in the capital. The rebellion has been fomenting for years, they know they have right on their side, they are puritanical and martial, and they don't brook much in the way of dissent. In other words, the Czar is awful, and the Bolsheviks aren't necessarily better. Which is interesting, but makes for an increasingly unpleasant read.
Most distressing to me, is the change in Katniss's status. Now Katniss had become "The One". In some ways this feels like an artificial structure built to insure that Collins's heroine remains front and center. A slightly ridiculous amount of the rebel's strategy seems built around the existence of Katniss Everdeen in a way that felt slightly contrived. The best use of Katniss's new status was the creation of a pirate television series featuring Katniss amongst the rebel forces. It's pure propaganda, of course, Katniss is too valuable to the cause to put in real danger. She is quickly airlifted in and out of hot spots accompanied by a full camera crew. But later in the book the Katniss focus felt as corrupt as the Capitol itself. One of the terms of Katniss's cooperation with the rebellion was that she got to kill President Snow herself. In order to assure this, many, many other people die.
The carnage by the end of the series is fairly epic. I know I'm a total wimp, but by the end I began to feel just bludgeoned and manipulated, which, to be fair, might have been the point. I finished the book a while ago, but I've been sitting on this review as I honestly wasn't sure of what I thought. As with the first two books, I read Mockingjay in one sitting - Collins, if nothing else certainly knows how to tell a story, and putting aside what I said in my review of the first book, she pulls very few punches. The society she's invented is terrifying. It's a combination of the worst aspects of Russia under the Czar, with the rich living lives of unbelievable decadence with the majority in the districts living lives of absolute brutal poverty. Combine that with our current age of reality television and media spin, and you have a really ugly brew of an imagined but seemingly possible future.