Suzanne Collins has already proven her talent for storytelling with her recently completed Gregor the Underlander series. In that series, she showed she was able to create strong characters, move plot along quickly, deftly control the rise and fall in tension, and create moving scenes. While there were some weak sections in the series (sometimes the pace moved too quickly, settings often could have been more detailed, and a few characters could have been more richly drawn), by the end she had crafted one of the best YA series to hit the shelves the past few years — a thoughtful, often dark, almost always rewarding series.
I’m happy to report that with book one of The Hunger Games, there is no sophomore slump. In fact, Suzanne Collins returns with a starting book that is more tightly focused, more moving, more quickly paced, more thoughtful and provocative, and more fully and constantly tense throughout than her excellent Underland books.
The premise for The Hunger Games is admittedly somewhat derivative and one could come up with dozens of possible Hollywood-pitch-like pairings: “it’s Survivor meets Running Man”, “it’s The Lottery meets The Most Dangerous Game”, “it’s…”. None of it matters. What very often counts in a genre novel, where many of the same old premises, same old tropes, same old formulas, appear and reappear over the years is not the original starting point, but what you do with it. What The Hunger Games is, is good.
The opening whisks us right through the premise in a few brief pages. We’re in a post-apocalyptic North America — in a dystopia named Panem — a dystopia formed out of the remnants of civilization. Panem is ruled from a rich Capital and has 12 districts that provide what is needed — food, coal, etc. Outside the Capital the people are barely surviving, many starving and the rest close to it. Years ago the 12 districts (actually, 13 at the time) rebelled and were brutally put down. As “repentance” and as a form of cold reminder, every year each district sends one boy and one girl (chosen by lottery) to the Hunger Games — a televised kill-or-be-killed event set in a huge arena.
When Katniss’s younger sister, Prim, is chosen by lottery, Katniss volunteers in her place, joining Peeta — the chosen boy from her district — in the Games. All of this happens very fast in the book, as does the few days of training prior to the Games themselves. Though the background is quick, it is efficiently concise. We get a clear sense of much of what we need to know: what life is like for those in Katniss’ district, what she is like, her relationship with her best friend Gale, her place in the family (she’s become the one taking care of the family since her father died in a mining accident), the contrast between life in the Capital and life in the districts, etc. There isn’t a lot of detail, and some readers will probably wish for more explanation, but what we have is sufficient.
By the time the Games themselves start, we have a solid footing. Which is good, because once the Games do start, it’s all pretty breathless as Katniss tries to survive. There are a lot of action scenes — fights, things blowing up, desperate attempts to save wounded people, etc. — but Collins isn’t interested in simply an episodic line of battles, one after the other, showing off various combat skills until the winner is left alone.
Katniss faces many complex decisions — to what extent does she “play” to the watching crowd (a “popular” contestant can gain sponsors who can pay for gifts that can be the difference between life and death), can she really kill another human, whom can she trust, what motivates the people around her, what is her relationship to Peeta or Gale, what debts does one human own another, etc. The third person point of view focuses on her actions and thoughts and so we struggle with those questions even as she does, all while we root for her to “win” through the discomfort of realizing what this means is that we’re rooting for her to kill.
We also come to care about Peeta, even as we wonder just what game, if any, he is playing. And the relationship between the two of them is a major point of interest and tension. And while the other contestants, with one significant and moving exception, aren’t painted in any sort of detail, we do get enough quick, concise brushstrokes for several of them to have distinct personalities (though I do wish more was done in this area).
Along with getting us to care about the people, and not just the plot points, Collins also offers up some clear social criticism as well as some hints at much larger issues than these few characters or these single Games, both with regard to this created world and our own society. And while The Hunger Games ends resolved and can be read without fear of a cliffhanger, there is enough left hanging in the air that the reader wants to see what happens afterward.
There really is very little to criticize in The Hunger Games, though one point should be made clear. Collins does not shy away at all from the premise of 24 kids placed in a kill-or-be-killed situation. There is no deus ex machina that swoops down and stops the games before anyone is killed or miraculously revives the killed contestant. People die in this book. In fact, most of the people die in this book. And our main character kills some of them. And not by accident. The Hunger Games is as dark as its premise promises and therefore it is not for the very young.
The Hunger Games has a strong main character and several strong supporting ones. Crystal clear, if not particularly beautiful, prose. A constantly suspenseful plot. A quick pace. Moving scenes. A grim tone that adds to the sense that actions matter. An author who has the courage of her ideas. Social criticism. Hints at a larger story to come. A first book in a series that ends with enough resolution that the reader can stop here and be satisfied. 400 pages that pull you along effortlessly. These positives more than outweigh the few very small negatives. Highly recommended.