Saturday, June 4, 2011

Pages{good_reads reviews]: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Book #2 in the Hunger Games Trilogy)

Catching Fire
by Suzanne Collins
(Book #2 of the Hunger Games Trilogy)
Note: I am aware that I did not write a first review for the original novel, and for that I have to say, "I didn't think of it until finishing the second book."

Catching Fire picks up a year after the end of the previous Hunger Games novel, and thus attempts to reengage the reader with new challenges, new villains, and a not-so-new scenario that capitalizes off of the original's unique setting by bringing us back into the games. No doubt by now most avid readers, or perusers of Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com, are more than aware of Suzzane Collins award winning young adult trilogy about the effects of violence and war on youth reaching maturation in a neo-apocalyptic American society. What initially draws readers to Collin's work? Well perhaps lends its success to the constantly evolving young adult novel craze that seemed to emerge after Harry Potter's first year at Hogwarts, or perhaps it has something to do with the Hollywood film adaption of the first novel coming to theaters Summer 2012. Either way, The Hunger Games trilogy is constantly gaining new readers every day whether by word of mouth or promotional marketing, and Catching Fire continues the themes instilled by the first novel in ways that this review hopes to examine.

Oh how our little girl is growing up. The emotionally conflicted and at times socially innate Katniss Everdeen, is a much more a young woman than a teenage, and one that grapples the line between survival and regret with such great precision its a wonder how she ever finds time to get around to tell the young men in her life just how she is feeling. Yes just as the original novel harbored said love triangle, so does the sequel intend on making the wounds and scars of teenage romance all the more sweet. As readers of young adult fiction we almost innately expect to see the romance between Katniss and Peeta and Katniss and Gale to culminate into something weighty and emotional- which is exactly what happens, but in varying and sometimes brief bookended scenes. This becomes a second, or possibly third plot point however as Katniss Everdeen finds herself in a whole mess of something greater than she could ever have imagined. Interestingly, it is in the central foundation of the book, that truly reveals Katniss's hardened view of the world around her coming afire, just as her dress had ignited in the first processional parade in the 74th Hunger Games, but her awareness of her newly appointed role in said society has only a few moments to become realized before the last page is turned. More on that later.

As readers of the first novel know- the world of Panem is essentially a neo-world war version of a ravaged American nation. The once united States have been sectioned off into export unique "districts", which fall under the totalitarian rule of a sovereign state known as the Captiol. Much of the first novels plot focused on Katniss and her fellow district 12 partner and sometimes lover Peeta Mellark, and their enduring survival both inside the arena and in the Capitol itself, and in this the author went "head over heels" in attempting to create a widely imaginative world full of  dystopian communities and futuristic warfare methods. This societies foundations are built upon the destruction of the past and initiates a mysterious atmosphere of tension and doubt that surprisingly isn't quite as present in it's followup. This realization came about early for me, and it becomes both a problem and a success for this edition as the story remains chained and tethered to its previous plot devices, and yet somehow releases rather ploddingly into future events transpiring in the trilogies third installment, Mockingjay. It's really too bad actually, as the first novel is so well crafted and thus satisfying as a book in this genre that it's sequel could feel so hollow. It is not that Katniss's evolution into the girl that inspires "the fires within those in Panem" isn't interesting by itself, but when the central focus of the book becomes survival in a copycat version of the original novel's central device, it just feels over done.

Though the games continue, the rules have changed by placing former victors back into a strange and deadly arena for the 75th Hunger Games, called the Quarter Quell for its unique declaration of another quarter century passing since the Capitol's destruction of rebel forces. Katniss is not alone in this edition and though she had chosen self sufficient survival throughout most of the first novel, it seems she chooses groupthink in the second. Within the arena, Katniss and Peeta forgo a sense of district unity and on the words of Haymitch Abernathy, their drunken mentor and coach, attempt to band together with a large selection of other combatants. This almost assuredly does little but make every moment of conflict feel both forced and almost downgraded in comparison to the 74th games in which her survival depended upon her entirely.  In fact one of my greatest complaints about Catching Fire resides in it's utter lack of opposition that Katniss encounters in the arena itself. Her disparaging meeting with the Capitol's President Snow, the main antagonist of the trilogy, seems lifetimes removed from the time spent focusing on the Quarter Quell, and the events transpiring between those inducted into its death arena seem to only downplay the emotional and physical survival that given the right "personalities" could have been seen as real challenges. I understand if Collins was attempting to create this image of the Capitol holding complete control over anything and everything, but without a chance to embody and characterize those emotions it almost feels like the contestants are running through a funhouse maze. Katniss is unfortunately fighting against an enemy we barely even get a chance see and know seemingly less about. It is only after the third act do we realize what Katniss should have discovered perhaps earlier on, as the last few pages bring about big changes in which a giant cliffhanger is purported looking more like a hastened synopsis for the book its held within, rather than an actual revelation. The intuitive nature of the Hunger Games trilogy becomes troublesome in moments like this, as entire climaxes are confined to allusive paragraphs that seem to explain more than 100s of pages of plot and action seem to do but without the satisfaction of learning alongside the character.

If Suzanne Collin's had elaborated upon elements pertaining to characters, as the novel began to to in part one, over the elements circumventing the inner workings of the arena then perhaps I would not have felt as mislead. As the sequel to the Hunger Games, Catching Fire had a lot to live up to and unfortunately it seems to miss many of the opportunities that it sets itself up for. Katniss Everdeen is becoming a young woman, and that transition is a tough one, but it doesn't mean that external forces cannot equal that maturation, as the novel seems to transpire within itself everytime we drift away from that internal resolution.

Catching Fire is certainly worth reading if you enjoyed the Hunger Games, but do not attempt to call them equals, as they are completely different examinations of very similar situations. For what it is worth I did enjoy reading Catching Fire, and feel that above all the writing carries many of the tones introduced in the first novel, as well as embodying at least the universe for which the story is told within.