Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins has certainly been one of the most anticipated titles this year, bringing to a close the trilogy that began with The Hunger Games and continued with Catching Fire. The Hunger Games was a captivating, compelling read — one of my favorite reads that year — and Catching Fire was close to it in quality; though different in pace and tone, it maintained a strong sense of character and character growth. So does Collins manage to recapture the fire in Mockingjay? To be honest, it’s a bit mixed.
In book one, the games are, well, the games (I’ll assume you already know what the Hunger Games are). In book two, the games broaden, though by the end we’re back in the literal games via the Quarter Quell. In Mockingjay, the “games” have broadened once more, becoming all-out war between the districts, led by District 13, and the Capitol. Katniss is the districts’ sometimes reluctant symbol of resistance, a symbol “employed” by District 13 via propaganda shoots, cameras that follow her around, scripted “rebel” lines, etc. The parallels between the preparation and execution of the war and Katniss’ earlier experiences with the games are drawn clearly for the reader (at times perhaps too much so — this was the first of the books where I felt the author was aiming clearly at a YA audience that might need a bit more help). Where she trained for the arena, she now trains as a soldier; where she was primped and made up for the audience of the games for a better show, she’s now primped and made up for the audience to better manipulate them into resisting. Collins does a good job making these parallels clear, but also showing Katniss’ reluctant acceptance of them while she’s also often repulsed by them. She also does a good job at the obvious — war is not in fact a game — and so, like its predecessors Mockingjay is filled with deaths, lots of them and some quite powerful. The war scenes we see will as well seem disturbingly familiar, many of them akin to terrorism or scenes from Iraq: the pods as IEDs, human shields, civilian casualties, etc.
Where Collins runs into some trouble is toward the end of the book when the “games” aspect becomes a bit too literal and the resistance has to run a gauntlet of killer “pods” in the city streets a la the creative death-dealing in the arenas. This feels a bit too contrived, a bit too much been-there-done-that, and trivializes the war aspect a little. The pods also don’t seem to make much logistical sense and seem somewhat random. Actually, the entire logistical aspect is the weakest part of the novel. The exterior world-building, beyond the narrow focus on the arenas, has always been thin, but one could ignore it in the earlier works. Here, though, with the plot being painted across all the districts and then in the entire city of the Capitol, we needed a clearer, more concrete, more full vision of how the world works. We get the war in a few scenes but mostly as snippets and it becomes a shock toward the end when the results are simply declared and then again when one realizes just how far it’s gone (vague, I know, but I don’t want to ruin plot).
The plot also has some pacing issues, some parts flying along and others stuttering through: the opening is a bit slow, as are some of the training scenes, and a scene involving the bombing of District 13 is both slow and strangely disconnected, and also calls up some basic questions of logistics. There are a few other plot points I had issues with, but they involve some spoilers so won’t go into them.
Character is a bit more tricky than plot in this one. Katniss’ character has always carried the reader through via her strength, her active role and sharply compelling voice. In Mockingjay, however, she’s much more passive as she’s forced, often reluctantly but eventually willingly, into being a propaganda tool by District 13’s President Coin. We get flashes of her vibrant will as she defies orders at various times, but mostly she’s reacting to people and events and within a relatively constrained perimeter. She’s also in much more confused waters than the “kill or be killed” and “stay alive” world of the arena. It isn’t quite clear whom to trust, politics is inherently shadowy, she’s both the target and tool of propaganda, it’s unclear to whom or to what principles to remain loyal to, it’s unclear as to what methods are justifiable: can one use the methods of one’s enemies without being the same as them?
This passivity and confusion is essential to the book. In fact, I’d say it’s the major point, but it makes for a read that is less satisfactory on the surface level. Mockingjay is a different kind of book, and a deeper book, but that costs the book a bit in that it loses that thrill-ride aspect of the first two. Personally, I like that she’s done something different, but some readers may bemoan the edge-of-the-seat, always-driving-forward, kick-ass-heroine aspects of the first two books.
Beyond Katniss, the other characters vary in depth and quality. Gale becomes a symbol of the “win at all costs” mentality, while Peeta, for complex reasons, argues for a ceasefire to spare lives. Gale suffers a bit from one-dimensionality, but Peeta is nicely complex and shaded, as is Katniss’ former mentor Haymitch. Prim, Katniss’ sister, isn’t on stage much but when she is she dominates in a quietly forceful and often poignant fashion.
This trilogy has always had a darker, more realistic bent. Too often we see the young, plucky hero (male or female) overcome all odds and defeat the bad guys/dark lord/dystopian leaders with only a single loss or two, required for emotional effect. Collins shows us how much that is childish wishful thinking. Kat doesn’t get to make all the choices here; she suffers more than a single loss or two, as do those around her; her decisions cause others pain; and the band of good guys she’s surrounded by (the fellowship, if you will) is a lot more grey than white. The muddiness of the world and war logistics is a major weakness in Mockingjay and means this conclusion isn’t as good as the first two books in some ways, but the other reasons the book doesn’t “satisfy” are essential to its realistic vision of people and the world as it is, which make Mockingjay a powerful and fitting conclusion.