More than a year ago, a friend recommended that I check out this book called The Hunger Games. It sounded good to me, but I didn't get around to it until last week. Lucky thing, too! Completely by coincidence, I picked up the first book of the trilogy six days before the final book was published—meaning I only had a short wait for the conclusion of the series. I finished Mockingjay last night, and I can't think of any word to describe it but incredible.
A word mainly to my family, who are the main (and probably only) readers of this blog: don't read my review until you've read this series. I'm serious. Move the mouse cursor to the right hand corner of the screen, and press the red box with the "X" in it. Did you do it? If not, then I'm going to assume you've already read the series. If this isn't the case, reconsider what I have said. You don't have to do this. Don't let me spoil a great story for you! Still here? Good. I'm glad you've read the books.
First, some general observations apart from the plot.
"Young Adult" Classification: To some extent, I can understand why. The protagonist is sixteen (later seventeen) years old and, despite some necessary maturing from an early age, essentially has the mental and emotional capacities of an adolescent. I understand that kids want to read about kids, but these books are just as appropriate for adults, if not more so. Frankly, I don't think teenagers will be able to fully appreciate the profundity of the ultimate messages of the series. Sure, they'll have an emotional reaction (it's impossible not to), but I just can't imagine a fourteen-year-old taking in a greater message than that she is sad or happy for the characters. Despite the classification for a younger audience, these books are at the same reading level as any of Dan Brown's or John Grisham's books—and better written, too. I suppose it's necessary to target a demographic, but it's a shame that many parents will push these books aside because their kids are reading them.
The Writing Style: At first I found the present tense jarring, but that lasted for only a few pages. I can't even imagine this book in standard past tense. The present tense adds to the suspense, the absorption, the investment. The first-person narration is nothing new, of course, but the execution—the way Ms. Collins draws you into the world and lets you see it through this troubled girl's eyes—is fantastic. Furthermore, she finds an excellent balance between descriptive storytelling and not burdening the reader with unnecessary details. Many things are left unsaid, but this is only occasionally frustrating.
Continuity: I don't know why I appreciate this, but the fact that all three books are approximately the same length (within fifteen pages of each other) really appeals to me. It just seems like they are three parts to the same story. In a series like Harry Potter, the longest book is nearly three times as long as the shortest. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that; it just places the emphasis on certain parts of the story at the expense of others. The Hunger Games trilogy has a great story arc. Each book has its own individual climax, yes, but there is also a clear goal that transcends the individual books.
If you read to this point and still haven't read the books, I suppose that's okay. But seriously, stop now. I'm going to start talking about plot, and you don't want to ruin it for yourself. I've given you every chance to walk away and go pick up the books. I wash my hands of the responsibility.
That's not true. Reader, I love you, but I don't trust you, so for your own protection, I'm going to avoid specifics as much as possible. However, I won't sacrifice my ability to share my thoughts, so I will stress again that continuing to read, if you haven't read the books, is a very bad idea.
I mentioned earlier the profundity of the message of the books, but it is a simple message: be nice to people; wars are bad; each human life is of worth. Maybe a fourteen-year-old could understand it, but if I had read the book when I was that age, I would have been wrapped up in the characters.
And getting wrapped up in the characters is so easy to do! Katniss, the narrator and protagonist of the story, is a fantastic character. To me, her greatest strengths are her weaknesses. It's so refreshing to have a protagonist who isn't perfect, who doesn't always know the right answers, who isn't even sure what she believes! It's not adolescent fickleness, but rather a depth of conflicting emotions and a response to the complicated world in which she lives. Katniss has a conscience throughout the series, despite being turned into a killer. It's this disparity that makes her such a great character. You don't know what she'll do next because not even she knows what she'll do next. At times she can be frustrating, but it only makes her more human.
The Peeta/Gale dynamic adds a lot to the story. Both are likeable, and I was never quite sure for whom I was rooting. Then, of course, I had to remind myself that it's possible Katniss will never open herself up to romance (for the best of reasons!). Nevertheless, they are both important to her, and you expect she'll have to make a decision eventually—unless one of them dies. I would have been okay with either decision, but her reasons for choosing who she does are all the right ones. And he certainly deserves it.
The real suspense in the books is the nature of the games themselves. In both books one and two, you are led to believe that only one of the characters will walk away alive. This leaves you with a sense of dread throughout the story, both because you like the characters and want them to survive, but also because you don't want Katniss to end up in a position where she is forced to kill someone like Rue. (Can you imagine?!) It's hard to beat that suspense, but in Mockingjay, where potentially everybody can survive, the suspense is arguably greater. When you know that they don't have to die, but very likely will, it leads to an even greater sense of urgency. Who will make it out alive, and how?
Snow manipulates Katniss in the end, but I believe what he tells her is the truth. And I'm glad Katniss did what she did. The real message here is that even the "good guys" aren't always good, but that doesn't mean the "bad guys" are either. Perhaps the idea is that there is no purity in the world. I could certainly get on board with that.
Finally, I appreciate that the author doesn't spare our feelings. From the first page of the first book, she's been willing to kill any and every character, except perhaps for the main three. Real life isn't fair, so why should a story about an unfair world end happily? At best, it's a bittersweet ending and at worst, it's soul-crushing. At first, I thought it was ridiculous to have both Peeta and Gale survive, but now I think that this was yet another way that Ms. Collins didn't pull any punches. If one of them had died, it would have been sad, but also—in a twisted way—convenient for Katniss. Instead, the decision of who to choose is put into Katniss's hands, which is ultimately more painful for her.
These were the first books in a long time which I absolutely could not put down. I won't recommend reading them at this point, because if you've made it this far, you should have already read them. And if you haven't, what's the point now? I may have avoided too many specifics, but I couldn't avoid them completely and you have pretty much ruined the series for yourself. So go read something else, and don't hold a grudge against me. I tried to warn you. I tried to protect you. Maybe next time you'll listen.