Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic: 2009

At the conclusion of The Hunger Games many readers likely wondered how Suzanne Collins could possibly follow that finale and still tell a compelling story which would at all live up to The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games was a particular event in the novel, a one shot deal, a reality television show meant to degrade and humiliate each of the twelve Districts surrounding the Capitol. The Games were a yearly event, but the winner would be exempt from future games and the losers, well the losers are all killed as part of the Games. Winning equals survival and The Hunger Games followed Katniss Evergreen, a girl from District Twelve, in her attempt to survive the games and return to her District and her family.

Now, early on in The Hunger Games the reader likely figured out that Katniss would win the Games. The novel featured first-person narration and a likeable heroine and it was the first volume of a proposed trilogy. While it would not be impossible for Collins to kill off her heroine, it should have been viewed as an unlikely event. The drama of The Hunger Games was in how Katniss would survive, in how many of the contestants she would have to kill, and whom. It would be in her struggle to live, but still be herself. Readers may have been able to guess one aspect of the ending, but the fun is seeing how it all comes together. Collins also had some surprises for the reader and it is those surprises which inform the set up of Catching Fire.

This is where those who don’t want to know the actual ending to The Hunger Games should stop reading.

Yes, Katniss survived and won the Hunger Games. Her method of winning, though, was a defiance of the rules of the game, and thus of the authority of the Capitol itself. That she was able to succeed was a testament to the social popularity of the Games in the Capitol. What happened was that the final two contestants were Katniss and the other boy selected from District Twelve, Peeta. During the Games Katniss and Peeta become close, though much was her strategy to win gifts from the viewers. Her strategy was to play up their relationship and in the end, to threaten mutual suicide using poisoned berries rather than for either to kill the other. It worked, and for the first time ever in the seventy-four year history of the Games, there were two winners.

The problem with the Capitol was that the ruling elite saw Katniss as defying their authority and the Games are meant to be a demonstration of their authority over the Districts. Her actions could be construed as inciting insurrection amongst the Districts, though she intended no such thing. President Snow threatens Katniss that she must keep up her charade of intense love for Peeta, a love she doesn’t feel. That she must do nothing on the post Games tour to incite any rebellion, intentionally or not.

That’s the opening set up for Catching Fire. Like The Hunger Games, the novel is centered around Katniss and her attempts to survive an impossible situation. Unlike The Hunger Games, the opening premise of the novel is not a physical fight to the death, though the stakes are equally high.

The question readers had at the end of The Hunger Games? It’s answered. Yes, Catching Fire lives up to the promise of The Hunger Games and, in fact, surpasses it and raises the bar once again. Collins throws impossible twists and threats at her characters, puts them in extreme danger, and requires impossible decisions of them. Catching Fire is, in turn, thrilling and heartbreaking, powerful and gutsy. Catching Fire takes everything good in The Hunger Games, and makes them better.

If it could be viewed as possible, Catching Fire raises the stakes of The Hunger Games and Suzanne Collins tells a story which is much more compelling than the one the suggested by the opening chapters of the novel. Unlike The Hunger Games, readers will be unlikely to predict how Catching Fire will end. Yes, Katniss is still the narrator of the novel, but she has a different aim in Catching Fire.

This is a fantastic novel.

The concluding volume of The Hunger Games trilogy should be one of the more hotly anticipated titles of 2010.

Previous Review
The Hunger Games

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