Review: The Hunger Games trilogy

At this point, reviewing the blockbuster Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins feels a bit like reviewing Pac-Man or breakfast.  It’s ubiquitous. What can I possibly add to the conversation — especially given how many of you have probably already read the books?  So I’ll keep this review short and there will be a separate post for discussion with spoilers.

On to the spoiler-free review. In short: if you haven’t read The Hunger Games trilogy, I recommend it.  The books are about Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in a grim future.  Almost all of humanity has been wiped out.  In North America, all that’s left is the Capitol, the glittering city that rules over the new nation of Panem, and twelve Districts that the Capitol controls with an iron fist.  Katniss’s hometown, District 12, is a coal-mining district in what used to be Appalachia.  Seventy-five years prior to the start of The Hunger Games, the Districts rose up in rebellion against the Capitol and were defeated.  As punishment for the Districts’ rebellion the Capitol began the Hunger Games.  Each year, two children from each District are selected by lottery and are forced to fight to the death while cameras film their every move.  The first book opens on the day of the Reaping, the day when the Hunger Games competitors are chosen — and you’ve probably already guessed that Katniss herself will be one of the competitors.

This is a great dystopian young adult series, fast-paced with interesting, well-rounded characters.  The present-tense prose occasionally verges on clunky, but the plot and the characters are incredibly compelling.  I know I’m not the only one who couldn’t put the series down once I’d started — I had to find out what happened next.  The Hunger Games also raises smart questions about economic privilege, political propaganda, what’s justifiable in wartime, the ethics of entertainment, and doing the right thing at great personal cost.  This is a series that begs to be discussed and one that I would feel very happy giving to a teenage reader.

Furthermore, Katniss is one of the most richly developed protagonists I can remember in YA literature.  She has many good qualities — she is brave, smart, athletic, and devoted to her family — but she’s far from perfect.  She’s lived a hard life and that has made her cynical and wary, willing to put her family’s needs above all else.  The supporting characters are just as well-developed, especially Katniss’s mentor Haymitch, her best friend Gale, and her fellow Hunger Games competitor Peeta.

That said, this is a disturbing series. Collins doesn’t sugar-coat or glamorize the Hunger Games, even as Katniss herself is being primped and costumed for pre-Hunger Games interviews.  This is a book about children killing other children.  Some readers may find the subject matter too upsetting.  If you find the first book hard to read, I will warn you that the series gets more upsetting from there.  In particular, the trilogy’s final book, Mockingjay, is very dark.

I was also a bit disappointed in Mockingjay after reading The Hunger Games and Catching Fire — the third book didn’t quite live up to the standard set by the first two. I admired its unflinching tone and its honest treatment of war, but I thought the narrative was disorganized and poorly paced.  For more on my problems with Mockingjay, see the discussion with spoilers.

Whatever complaints I had about the series, however, are minor compared to the things I liked about it.  The Hunger Games is a smart, thoughtful trilogy that deserves its stunning success.

Rating: Buy it

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