Thursday, 18 July 2013

More Review: Catching Fire and Mockingjay

Having read these books in a bit of blaze and a blur I thought I'd review them together.

The sequels to the Hunger Games, the two novels take the world and expand it. The first, Catching Fire, deals with the direct aftermath of the Games as Katniss and Peeta are forced to undertake a victory tour to remind the various sectors of the horror of that's waiting for them. Almost immediately the stakes are raised as the President himself turns up to threaten Katniss with a fate worse than death if she attempts to raise revolution against the Capitol, reflecting the defiance of the final act of the Hunger Games where the she and Peeta pull off a fake suicide pact live on camera. Taken as an act of rebellion by the already discontented districts, defiance and riots against the Peacekeepers (a wonderfully euphemistic name, but so cliched you might as well just call them bully boys or fascists) it's spreading and it seems as if everything she and Peeta do unwittingly fans the flames, even as they're haunted by nightmares of what they've done and seen (because apparently counselling, therapy and making sure your champions aren't likely to suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder aren't taken into account).  Things come to a head when the trouble leads to a new, harsher regime being installed in their home district and her friend Gale is caught bringing meat back from the forbidden zone (the area outside the fence where there are wild animals to kill for meat and plants to gather.

Honestly this first section of the book feels a little lost, its only when we come to the matter of the next year's games that things snap back into focus. Here, we find that it's a 'Quarter Quell', a special games to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Capitol's victory in the war. Each of these quarter games has had a special rule to inflict further misery, the first required people to vote on their 'tributes', the second doubled the number of participants. The one in Catching Fire sends the old victors back to the arena; you can almost hear the author's sigh of relief.

After this we're back into the whirl of the Games, of interviews and training and so on. The characters may be different, but the story feels fundamentally the same. The Games themselves are far more devious and brutal, despite the fact that many of the participants are scarcely able to defend themselves let alone do anything and there's a far more sadistic tone to the horrors that the Game Makers have concocted, from rains of blood to mockingjays with songs that sound like the distressed cries and screams of loved ones.

Eventually the contestants 'break' the games, finding a way to break the forcefield surrounding the arena, we fade to black and the next thing we know a rogue faction has rescued some of the champions and are taking them back to Sector 13 which is still alive after all this time. Sector 12, Katniss' home is gone, firebombed into oblivion and only a few people have survived and only thanks to an oversight where the Peacekeepers turned off the electric fence (why? That makes no sense at all).

Throughout this we have the relationship with Peeta and Katniss, fake, hollow but presented to the cameras at every turn as perfect. For the sake of the cameras they're presented as getting ready to get married and in the whirl of the pre-games' interviews Peeta pushes it further, 'revealing' that they're already married and that Katniss is pregnant. Their relationship and the lies he tells push through into the rest of the book, but it feels transparent, perhaps because of the point of view the stories are told from.

Catching Fire feels like a middle book, or film. It's arguably the weakest of the three volumes and the least convincing. It does an adequate job of setting things up for the third volume however.

The third book, Mockingjay, feels rushed in many respects. How can it not, when it packs an entire war in to 450 odd pages? There's a good job of establishing Sector 13 and explaining the history behind the deception that allowed them to hide for so long. I feel that the author establishes and interesting society here, almost Communist in some regards but also harking back to Sparta (which of course operated a form of Communism before Marx had even been thought of). Everything is very military, you have soldier citizens; most people seem to be in the army and chillingly military training seems to begin about the age of 14.

The book follows the course of the growing conflict and Katniss' role in it as the Mockingjay, a figurehead of the girl who defied the Capitol and who, in turn, defies Sector 13 by entering combat rather than being a mere puppet. Despite the apparent disparity between in tech levels we see in the books the war seems thoroughly modern, fought through TV and propaganda as much by boots on the ground. Peeta, captured by the Capitol at the end of book two is used a mouthpiece and transformed into a monster by use of a mutated venom which makes him see Katniss as a 'muttation'. Eventually the books leads us to the capture of the Capitol and the revelation that both sides are actually as bad as each other, something rammed home when the forces from Sector 13 kill a group of children, using the silver parachuted parcels so familiar from the Hunger Games themselves, to deliver bombs. As  if to rub salt into the wound, Katniss' sister Prim (the one she volunteers to replace in the Games in the first place) is killed during this event.

The book closes with the leaders of both sides dead (one choked to death, the other shot with an arrow courtesy of our heroine), a final Hunger Games being fought, this time by the children of the Capitol and Katniss banished back home. Here, oddly, she finds peace of a sort and reunites with Peeta. Equally damaged by the world, they find solace in each other and their love affair becomes real.

Aside from the rushing speed of the book, Mockingjay is a stronger book with good character development across the board. We learn more about almost everyone, with Prim and the girls' mother being the startling exceptions. The ending feels a little strange, it seems odd that someone who was the fac eof the revolution would be allowed to fade away into obscurity.

All in all the series is strong, but obviously aimed at teenagers (as it should be). The world is interesting, the story strong if a little predictable. The author is obviously far more comfortable with certain parts of her narrative than she is with others but that's not necessarily a bad thing; I imagine most of the readers are more interested in the Games aspect of the books than anything else. As it stands I'd list this as a strong contender for a place in the grand tradition of American Post Apocalypse novels, despite the age group its aimed at.

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