Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

(Spoiler alert: don’t read if you’re still planning to read The Hunger Games)

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Hunger Games — I was expecting Twilight but these books are fun, thoughtful reads . I was also put off at first by the fact that Hunger Games seemed like some combination of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Stephen King’s The Running Man.  But there aren’t that many original plots in the world, and these are good ones. Collins takes these ideas and creates a highly original world.

Catching Fire has a tough act to follow as a sequel and as the middle book of a trilogy.  The book immediately draws you in, right where the last left off.  Katniss has survived the Games, and she gets to spend the rest of her life as a wealthy, adored celebrity.  Perfect, right?  Except we already know from The Hunger Games that Katniss will actually have to spend the rest of her life coaching young competitors in the Games, so she will actually have to relive her experience again and again. And she’ll actually become a part of this tyrannical system of government that forces children to kill each other to survive.

On top of that, the Games have placed her in the impossible position of having to pretend she loves Peeta.  It may be she actually does love him; or maybe she could have loved him if her feelings hadn’t been so manipulated.  So now she returns home to deal with her feelings for Peeta and her friend Gale.  Collins has created something more interesting than the standard love triangle here because Katniss really has no idea how she feels or what it means to be in a relationship.  (Although this can also be a detractor at times.  Kat is oddly asexual for a teenage girl; Collins describes kissing like she’s never done it before.)

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away.  In some ways, Catching Fire was not as engaging a read as the first one.  The book starts out strong, drags in the middle, then picks up again in the second half.  But Hunger Games had the advantage of a simple, straightforward plot device – character thrown into a conflict, fights for survival, and at the same time grows and develops as a person.  On the other hand, in this book Collins is really freed up to be more creative with the story – and we see that in her depiction of the Quell Games and the creation of characters who are more multi-dimensional.  Also, she moves from a story focused on the survival of a couple of people, to broader ideas of tyranny, and revolution.  Can one person make a difference? And if you could make that difference, could you sacrifice yourself, or the people you love, for a larger ideal?  I think the idea that one person, whether they intend to or not, can spark a revolution must be true.  Also interesting is the idea that Kat is the spark but Peeta is kind of the conscience — although even he is willing to kill people in the Games which I found contradictory.

The end surprised and satisfied, and definitely kept me anticipating the next book.  For people who like this series, check out the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, a fantastic writer of young adult paranormal/steampunk/dystopian fiction.  Also check out this article a friend sent me from the New Yorker, “Fresh Hell” – it’s all about why young adult dystopian fiction is so popular right now (though I’m not sure that’s anything new).

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