Wednesday 15 September 2010

Book Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

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"Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has won the annual Hunger Games. She and fellow district tribute Peeta Mellark are miraculously still alive. Katniss should be relieved, happy even. After all, she has returned to her family and her longtime friend, Gale. Yet nothing is the way Katniss wishes it to be. Gale holds her at an icy distance. Peeta has turned his back on her completely. And there are whispers of a rebellion against the Capitol — a rebellion that Katniss and Peeta may have helped create.

"Much to her shock, Katniss has fueled an unrest she’s afraid she cannot stop. And what scares her more is that she’s not entirely convinced she should try. As time draws near for Katniss and Peeta to visit the districts on the Capitol’s cruel Victory Tour, the stakes are higher than ever. If they can’t prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are lost in their love for each other, the consequences will be horrifying."


The Hunger Games was that rarest of things: a publishing sensation actually deserving of the tidal wave of hype which propelled it into the cultural consciousness. Equally, Katniss Everdeen, the eldest daughter of broken and impoverished family barely scraping by in District 12, broke with convention, proving a refreshingly unconventional heroine who eschewed many of the trappings you'd expect from such a character. She was smart, resourceful and self-aware, so when the Capitol cast Katniss into the 74th Hunger Games, an annual Battle Royale designed to keep the districts of Panem in check, she came out of the ensuing bloodbath alive - if not exactly unscathed. And for the first time in the history of the Hunger Games, she escaped the arena with company. Thanks to a Shakespearian vow of double suicide via a clutch of poisonous berries, the better to best the Capitol's murderous machinations, her sometime admirer Peeta, too, emerged intact.

The Capitol, of course, aren't too pleased with having had their own rulebook cast back at them in the dramatic finale of the last Hunger Games. Nor is Katniss, particularly. As a victor, she'll live a life of luxury, of privilege, though she'll have to tour the country on a regular basis, pretending all the while to love Peeta lest the public lose interest in her - when in fact her heart is with Gale, an old friend from District 12. Emboldened by Katniss' example, however, there are rumblings of revolution amongst the people of Panem... uprising is on everyone's lips, and the Capitol, being oppressors and all, mean to nip all the dangerous talk in the bud.

As I began by saying, The Hunger Games was great. If I had one fear about the sequel, though, it was that YA author Suzanne Collins would take the already-hackneyed formula established therein (if not decades ago) and simply rise and repeat. Catching Fire, I'll grant up front, isn't quite that. Collins introduces a few inspired elements to the mix; gives up a handful of engaging new characters to stand in for those so mercilessly slaughted in the first book; and delves deeper into the inner workings of the Capitol, a rather faceless baddie stand-in before. Regretfully, however, the larger part of Catching Fire is more of the same. First and foremost, there's another round of the Hunger Games. This time out it's the Quarter Quell, a special Hunger Games in which only previous victors can compete. Katniss and Peeta are of course pressganged into the arena, and though it's a different arena, with a neat, clockwork twist and an array of new competitors, the climactic drama therein plays out much less excitingly.

For all intents and purposes, come to that, Collins seems to be going through the motions. Catching Fire is a take two of the events of The Hunger Games right down to the tedious dress-up, courtesy of Katniss' prep team and the victory tour she must suffer through directly after emerging from the arena the first time out. There's another round of will-they/won't-they between Katniss and Peeta, after a clinch with whom the unwitting symbol of the revolution muses: "I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind," and not, I would add, the kind I could give a hoot about. The relationship hokey-kokey which dominates the first third of Catching Fire and pops up sporadically, not to mention lamentably thereafter is decidedly not what this series is about; it feels like a transparent attempt to foster a kind of Team Gale versus Team Peeta mentality a la Twilight... as if all this, the entirety of The Hunger Games, is at heart a romance between two childhood sweethearts and a well-intentioned interloper, which, though Catching Fire certainly underwhelms, is nevertheless to undersell Collins' accomplishment in crafting a sophisticated and engaging young adult sensation.

There's certainly another great story to be told in Panem, but Catching Fire is all about getting there, arraying the pieces about the board in preparation for Mockingjay, which one can only hope justifies the manhandling Collins resorts to in pursuit of that end. As an entity unto itself, however, book two of The Hunger Games trilogy is disappointingly flat and repetitive. It short-sells the characters, climaxes in a morass of contrivance and nonchalantly fobs off the expectations created in part the first.

But you know what? All told, I still had fun. Catching Fire is far from the equal of The Hunger Games, though it means, I suspect, to be exactly that. Notwithstanding a few minor additions, it's more of the same... the same good thing. And that's fine.


Catching Fire
by Suzanne Collins
September 2009, Scholastic

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  1. I'd argue that Katniss' heart isn't with Gale, but that she's not sure where her heart is. But aye, you pretty much summed up my feelings for Catching Fire dead on. Let's see how you felt about Mockingjay...

  2. Indeed. Review's going up the day after tommorrow and I thought... it was better than Catching Fire, marginally. But I'll say no more. Teasing! :)

  3. I actually liked Catching Fire better than The Hunger Games, but I realize it was the other way around for most people.

  4. I'm slapping my hands over my ears and running past the 'Mockingjay' review until after I've read it. All in all I think I probably enjoyed 'Catching Fire' more than you did ( maybe?) but I agree with many of the points you make about it. (I still think Hunger Games and Catching Fire are by far one of the best YA stories out there at the mo.)

  5. You haven't read Mockingjay, Celine? Come on, now! What are you, busy writing a novel and launching another or something? :P

    Really, though, it's a definitive endpoint, and though my feelings on it otherwise are mixed, if you're at all invested in Katniss and Collins' world, you've really got to get to Mockingjay before someone spoils it for you.

  6. Believe me, work in progress and launch parties and crazy promotional schedule or not, I'd have grabbed it by now if it weren't for my 16yr old daughter standing over it and snarling like a rothweiler. She's determined non shall have it before her and she reads at a blissfully self indulgent snails pace :)