Scholastic, 2008, 384 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1
So, what are the kids up to these days? From the best-seller lists and the mass marketing push accompanying the release of The Hunger Games movie, it’s obvious that they’ve moved on from Twilight and Harry Potter onto Katniss, bow-wielding heroine of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Tell no one, but I enjoy reading Young Adult books to find out where the zeitgeist’s at: They’re usually good books, don’t take too much time to read and they give conversational material in case I unaccountably find myself hosting a middle-school party.
So it is that The Hunger Games (first volume of a trilogy by the same name) introduces the world of Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America that has the luxury of dispensing with every familiar social institution in order to set up a tyrannical regime in which the twelve districts of the empire are kept in their place through a cunning piece of social engineering: Annual survival games in which the districts each send two teenage participants. The last of the 24 contestants left standing wins a title, and the district gets extra food rations.
As a premise, it’s far-fetched enough to make SF readers reach for their “one big deviation from reality is allowed” suspension-of-disbelief card. There’s practically no precedent in American culture for this kind of deadly contest (no, reality TV doesn’t count), and you’d think that sacrificing 23 teenagers per year would stoke populist anger rather than put it in its place, but hey –one big deviation from reality is allowed. This is a YA novel and its whole point is to pit teenagers against each other in a fight to the finish, no matter how thin the rationale leading to this point can be.
Our heroine to guide us through the inevitable rebellion (but not yet, not in this first volume) is Katniss, a bright sixteen-year-old girl from poor District 12, the coal-mining Appalachian backwater of Panem. As the novel begins, Katniss is struggling to put food on the table for the ineffective mom and younger sister. Fortunately, she’s handy with a bow and isn’t afraid to venture beyond the fences of District 12 to hunt down wild game. Otherwise, she’s got an ongoing not-quite-romance with neighborhood boy Gale and seems headed for a quiet life of eternal desperation. But then… the games come calling and her sister is picked as a District 12 representative. Fortunately, she can volunteer to take her place, and that’s how she ends up on a train to Capitol, stuck alongside a boy with a crush on her (Peeta) and a boozy mentor who hates them both.
Things get more interesting during the lead-up to the Games, as Katniss and Peeta are groomed like reality TV contestants, a romantic storyline manufactured out of thin air to make them seem more compelling to the audience. We get to see them undergo wardrobe design, physical training, TV interviews… and a few political games alongside hints of Capitol’s terrifying power. Little of the background details sustain any kind of scrutiny: there’s enough advanced technology around to fix the problems that the Districts seem to be having, suggesting either a deliberately cruel society, or more plausibly incompetent world-building.
Fortunately, there’s more to The Hunger Games than cardboard-thin landscapes: Katniss’s first-person narration is a no-nonsense blend of clipped sentences, tangled emotions, descriptive statements and overall skepticism when confronted to the wonders of Capitol. She’s not buying into the mystique, but there’s little choice than to comply in order to get to the games. She doesn’t have any illusions regarding her chances for survival, especially when confronted to the contestants from the richer districts that actually have training programs for Game contestants. It doesn’t really help that Peeta reveals his crush on Katniss, and that their mentor seems particularly ineffective.
Soon enough, though, the action moves into the gigantic arena of the Games, where fairness is just a concept to be discarded by the game-masters, and where some contestants band together to hunt down their isolated counterparts. The book isn’t particularly sentimental about the violence perpetrated by the contestants (there’s even a mention of a particularly psychotic past contestant), all the best to raise the stakes against Katniss. Much of the action takes place in a wilderness fortunately similar to District 12’s forested hills, and Katniss soon finds herself in the last half, then the last quarter of the surviving contestants. There’s no doubt that she’ll survive, but it’s all in the way she defeats her opponents… some of them outside the arena.
The Hunger Games survives its unconvincing premise thanks to a blend of effective prose, lively plotting and an admirable heroine. Katniss is both endearing and credible: her abilities are impressive, but she has the self-doubts, indecision and cynicism of a teenage girl. She’s not a victim, not a prize to be claimed by someone else and actively resents the “star-crossed couple” narrative imposed by the game organizers on Peeta and herself. Even by the end of the novel, it’s not too clear whether her emotions about Peeta have settled in a definitive form. It’s not surprising if the book has found a large audience in its target market, especially with young women.
Given this, the success of The Hunger Games with its teen audience has a comforting lining to the edge of its violent premise. It’s an engaging read, and while it’s hardly surprising, it does wrap up nicely and it sets up its two sequels effectively. Better yet, it gives some compelling reason to read those two sequels… and given that a lot of box sets of the series are being sold in the wake of the film version’s success, that’s a really good thing.