Sometimes it is nice to be wrong. As a general rule when it comes to young adult urban fantasy I try to stay well away from the mainstream authors. The rule for me has been that if my 16-year-old is reading it and loving it, then I will steer clear of it. In the case of The Hunger Games, I was dead wrong.
Suzanne Collins‘ take on a post-apocalyptic North America is a cross somewhere between an Orwellian controlled series of city-states and E.E. Knight’s Vampire Earth, minus the vampires. Collins does a tremendous job of giving us a bleak, harsh reality from the beginning and uses the hard facts of life to give the story a believable premise. This is not simply a heroine who happens to succeed, but a strong main character grown and tempered by the world she inhabits.
Katniss, the main character, is an eldest daughter, protector, provider in a very harsh life. Her father has died and her mother and younger sister are largely reliant on her to keep them alive by hunting, gathering, and supporting them while they live in a meagre existence at the fringe of a poor society. Collins’ use of this situation to provide Katniss with a believable set of skills and abilities really sets The Hunger Games apart from much of the competition.
The central story of The Hunger Games is that Katniss is drawn into an almost gladiator-like competition to the death against other young people her age for the entertainment of the nation and its rulers. As a father, the thought is as abhorrent a practice as I can imagine; but Collins gives us plausible, if not acceptable, reasons why a repressive government might use such a scheme. It also provides a very, very interesting look at the differences between the elite in a society and the poor who labor to keep them in luxury.
The Hunger Games — not just the title, but the actual competition that Katniss is forced to compete in — is a brutal scene. Collins is very good at painting a picture of young people who are motivated to win at any cost, but she doesn’t go so far as to be gory and unnecessarily gruesome. When someone is killed, there is an appropriate description, but she doesn’t waste details on an audience that doesn’t need them in order to feel shocked.
Of particular note in this story are the emotional battles that Collins takes Katniss through. Her love of family versus her desire to live, her natural aversion to killing another person versus her desire to protect a friend, and finally the need to trust someone who she fears will betray her. These very emotional themes are mixed in with a small, tenuous romantic thread that really gives a young reader a lot to process. It’s very well done.
I was prepared to skim through The Hunger Games and to write Collins off as another pulp young adult romance novelist. I was wrong. Collins is a brilliant storyteller and The Hunger Games deserves all of the attention and fan support that is has received. From the jaded critics’ corner, I tip my hat in tribute to a great author and a good book about which my initial assumptions were quite wrong.