Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins

<em class="BookTitle">Catching Fire</em>, Suzanne Collins

Scholastic, 2009, 391 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-02349-8

The plot summary for Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, sequel to The Hunger Games, almost reads like a cheap joke: After surviving the deadly Hunger Games of the first novel, protagonist Katniss has to… do it again.  It’s a legitimate tactic for sequels to repeat favored plot elements from previous books, but… really?

Ah well; this isn’t the series’ first uncomfortable encounter with the problem of basic suspension of disbelief, and while one could fault the author for going back to the same formula, Catching Fire does feel different enough to hold our interest.

It’s clear from the beginning that series heroine Katniss Everdeen has been severely damaged from the events of the first volume.  Back in her home environment of District 12, Katniss has been freed from daily concerns: her victory ensures that her family and her district are well-fed, but at the same time have isolated her from any semblance of normal life.  It’s also clear that she has made powerful enemies during her time in the arena: A surprise visit by oppressor-in-chief President Snow makes it clear that her stunts have not been appreciated by the ones in charge, and that she better behave.

Of course, things don’t go as planned, and telling surly Katniss how to behave is bound to backfire.  As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the entire country is about to go in flames, with insurrections fanned by Katniss’ own behavior.

The twist of the knife becomes more obvious mid-way through, as the Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games participants are culled from past winners… landing Katniss and her ambiguous paramour Peeta back in the arena.  These Games, taking up the last third of the book, are a great deal more fragmented than the first ones, in-between Katniss’ increasingly fragile state of mind and various manipulations by the game-masters.  And that’s not even mentioning third-party interference in the conduct of the games…

While The Hunger Games focused on the Games in a general contest of rebellion against authoritarian rule, Catching Fire clearly shifts the emphasis of the plot onto the growing insurrection.  For Katniss, the political becomes undistinguishable from the personal as she and her immediate circle of friends and family are directly targeted by the regime.  Surviving the Games once was enough, but being thrown in the arena again?  It’s a wonder the regime in place actually expected that to work.

This, if dwelled upon, rapidly leads us back to the series’ severe credibility problems.  In fact, the more we learn about the future world of Panem, the less-believable it becomes.  We’re supposed to believe in a mixture of very advanced technology intermingling with a poor coal-producing District 12 with a few mere thousand citizens.  This lack of believability is where Collins’ series continues to run aground, but it’s not clear whether this is a evidence of Collins’ lack of skill in world-building, or an unsuccessful attempt to simplify a plot structure in order to make it understandable to young adult audiences.

Fortunately, there are more interesting things to discuss than the series’ unconvincing background.  Katniss’s narration seems even more fragmented here than in the first volume, lending a clipped rhythm to the prose that does a lot to propel readers forward.  Her refusal to play anyone else’s game seems even stronger here (especially now that’ she’s dragged back in the arena rather than volunteering for it.  Her attempts at self-sacrifice get less and less effective.)  Collins also adds a number of other characters to the series, adding complexity and nuance along the way.

The science-fictional nature of the story seems more obvious in Catching Fire, which suggests spectacular visuals given the inevitable movie adaptation.  Adult readers with an interest in the current cultural teen zeitgeist will find little that’s objectionable here for young-adult readers, and even quite a bit of entertainment along the way as they zip through the book.  It’s a middle-of-the-trilogy book, but a competent one… and readers who make it to the final line of Catching Fire will immediately jump to concluding volume Mockingjay to find out what happens next.

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