The Hunger Games: A cautionary tale

fantasy book review Suzanne Collins 1. The Hunger Games (2008) 2. Catching Fire (2009)
fantasy book review Suzanne Collins The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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.

~Bill Capossere (2009)

fantasy book review Suzanne Collins 1. The Hunger Games (2008) 2. Catching Fire (2009)fantasy book review Suzanne Collins The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? The Hunger Games has been getting lots of buzz, and by the time I was a few pages in, I knew it was all deserved.

And then it got better.

The Hunger Games takes place in the future, in a dystopian nation that arose from the ruins of the United States. Panem consists of twelve Districts and is ruled from a decadent Capitol. (Try Googling “Panem” to get the play on words. I’m sad to say I missed the reference while reading!) Every year, to underscore its domination of the Districts, the government demands a tribute of one girl and one boy per District. These adolescents are thrown into a vast, wilderness-filled arena, in which they fight to the death while Panem watches on television. This society is very different from our own, but just similar enough to be chilling. So many of us, for example, are hooked on reality TV. Now imagine Survivor, except with life and death at stake, not just money and fame.

Enter Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is a spirited and complex heroine. She’s prickly, sometimes cold, but she’s also brave, and fiercely protective of her own. When Katniss’s soft-hearted younger sister is chosen to fight in the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She’s sure this is a death sentence. The tributes from impoverished District 12 almost never win.

We follow Katniss and her childhood acquaintance, Peeta, to Panem, where they are prepared for their date with destiny. Here, we see the luxury Panem’s residents enjoy, so different from the squalor of District 12. Everything is entertainment here, even the annual slaughter of twenty-three children in the Games.

And then we get to the Hunger Games themselves. From that point on, I was riveted. I read from the beginning of the Games to the end of the book in one sitting, and stayed up until 2 a.m. to do it. Suzanne Collins maintains a nearly unbearable level of tension as Katniss contends with other tributes, Mother Nature, manipulations by the Gamemakers when killings slow down and the audience starts getting bored, conflicted feelings for Peeta, and the struggle to hold on to her humanity in the face of horrific situations. There are deep themes here if a reader is looking for them, and it can also be read as a darn fine action-adventure story. Try not to bite your nails too short…

I admit, though, that I’m not quite sure why [SPOILER here, highlight if you want to read it]: Katniss and Peeta’s gambit worked at the end of the Games. I’d think the Gamemakers and the audience could wring as much gratuitous drama out of a Romeo-and-Juliet double suicide as they did from what actually happened. [END SPOILER]

The Hunger Games is excellent. (I only wish it had contained a map, so I could get a grip on what Districts corresponded to what areas of the U.S. We learn that 12 is in Appalachia, but the others are a little nebulous.) I can’t wait to start Catching Fire.

~Kelly Lasiter (2009)


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.

~John Hulet (2010)

The news that Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is coming out in movie form in March 2012 finally moved me to read this book, which one of my young nephews has recommended to me with extravagant praise. That nephew is going to be a darned good literary critic when he grows up, because he’s absolutely right: The Hunger Games is an excellent adventure with plenty of depth to it.

Suzanne Collins clearly set out to make The Hunger Games a book that older as well as younger readers can enjoy. The setting is a dystopia of the future, in a world where the United States no longer exists. It has been replaced, at least in large part, by a country known as Panem. Panem consists of the Capitol (apparently somewhere around what we now know as Denver, Colorado) and 12 Districts, each with a special responsibility — agriculture, manufacturing, and so on. The first person narrator of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, lives in District 12, which lies somewhere in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. It is responsible for mining the coal that runs Panem.

Decades ago, well before Katniss’s birth, the Districts rebelled against the Capitol. It’s no wonder: the Capitol takes for itself all the resources produced by the Districts, while the citizens of most of the Districts live in poverty. In District 12, death by starvation is not uncommon – if the mines don’t get you first. The rebellion ended badly for the Districts, and conditions became even worse. One consequence of the rebellion is the Hunger Games, which occur each year. Each District is required to send two of its youth, between the ages of 12 and 18, one boy and one girl, to compete in a survival contest until they are all dead but one. The contestants are chosen by lottery. The lottery itself is tilted toward choosing the poorest of the poor to participate: if a child turns 12, he or she can collect “tesserae” for each member of his or her family, a sparse ration of oil and grain sufficient for a year, by entering additional times. So Katniss, for instance, when she turned twelve, had her name in the bowl four times, once for herself and once for each tessera she signed up for: one for herself, one for her sister, and one for her mother. And the number is cumulative; those four increase by four more each year she collects the tesserae. When the alternative is starvation, there’s little choice.

As The Hunger Games opens, it is the day on which the “reaping” will take place — the choosing of the two contestants. Primrose — Prim — Katniss’s beloved sister — has just turned 12, and will be in the reaping for the first time. She only has one entry, while Katniss has 20, and Katniss’s friend, Gale, has his name in 42 times. The catchphrase, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” applies with much greater force to Katniss and Gale than to Prim. But the unthinkable happens, and Prim’s name is drawn. Katniss frantically volunteers to take her place, and the plot takes off.

My strict “no spoilers” policy bars me from saying much more about the plot. The pages turn swiftly as the contestants are prepared in the Capitol for the competition, and even more swiftly once the competition begins. It is barbaric: 24 children unleashed into a wilderness area to kill one another until only one is left standing. They must scrounge for food and shelter. And even then, the Gamemakers twist the odds, creating adverse weather in the arena, or draining streams, or presenting gifts to chosen contestants that give them an advantage.

Collins expertly plays on her readers’ sense of justice and fair play, creating a sense of outrage and frustration when things go badly, and joy when something good happens to Katniss and her fellow District 12 participant, Peeta, the baker’s son. And there are deeper lessons here, too. The lopsided distribution of wealth in this society is extreme, and the consequences of that are spelled out in detail: the brutal repression of the poor, so that freedom of speech is unknown, and the freedom to travel seems to be nonexistent (the Districts are fenced in). No one grows up to be what one wishes in this society, unless one lives in the Capitol. You become what your parents were or, at least in District 12, you go to the mines. There is no such thing as making a better life for yourself than your parents had. For those who are at all politically minded, this book reminds us of what we have in America, for all her faults, and serves as a cautionary tale of what we could become if we do not solve our problems before they become unsolvable.

I am eager to begin Catching Fire, the next book in this trilogy. And yes, that will be today.

~Terry Weyna (2011)

Unputdownable. Very dark for YA. The audio version is excellent. 4.5 stars.

~Kat Hooper (2011)

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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JOHN HULET (on FanLit's staff July 2007 -- March 2015) is a member of the Utah Army National Guard. John’s experiences have often left a great void that has been filled by countless hours spent between the pages of a book lost in the words and images of the authors he admires. During a 12 month tour of Iraq, he spent well over $1000 on books and found sanity in the process. John lives in Utah and works slavishly to prepare soldiers to serve their country with the honor and distinction that Sturm Brightblade or Arithon s’Ffalenn would be proud of. John retired from FanLit in March 2015 after being with us for nearly 8 years.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. I agree. I looked at the bestseller listing for Hunger Games for over a year (?). Then, read the three books in close succession. A classic in the making.

  2. I agree. I recently gave in to the urging of a friend at work and read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. They both deserve all of the hype.

  3. I don’t think I can read this. Just the description of the world and the concept of the games made me cringe. This is not the book for me.

  4. My wife has read the whole series and keeps telling me that I need to read these books. I’m not sure why I keep putting it off (it could be the size of my to-read pile). I’m afraid if I don’t move these to the top of the stack she may start using the books as blunt instruments.

  5. I highly recommend it. And Hunger Games can stand on its own-so if you don’t want to read the whole trilogy–you can just have a great ride with book one

  6. Agree with Bill — I did enjoy the other two books but they’re not quite as good and you don’t need them to make the first book feel like a complete story.

  7. I need to read this; I’ve seen the movie (which I watched on a plane because I had nothing better to do, but then I loved it!) but the movie doesn’t make it clear what a no-win situation they were in with the tesserae.

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