“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

I confess: I’m something of an iconoclast when it comes to books everyone raves about. When The Lovely Bones was on the best-seller lists forever, I finally broke down and read it–and wasn’t terribly impressed. Ditto for the current favorite The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So, when this series by Suzanne Collins was being hailed with more gusto than a Superbowl winner, I eventually put the first volume on my TBR list, not terribly sanguine that my 0 for 2 record might be broken.

I’m now 0 for 3

Don’t get me wrong. The Hunger Games has a good, solid adventure story with a strong young heroine, which is rare in post-apocalyptic literature. Usually, women are relegated to what is perceived as their “natural state,” dependent on their menfolk for protection and sustenance. The world in which 16-year-old Katniss lives is fairly standard for the genre—environmental catastrophe leads to a semi-feudal society where the rulers wallow in luxury and high-tech while the workers who provide for them starve.

Although the action portions of the book kept me turning pages, I was still disappointed that I found the characterization somewhat flat, especially with regard to the two main male characters: Katniss’s hunting partner Gale and Peeta, the young man chosen as her companion tribute for the Hunger Games. Too often, I got the sense they were there mainly to provide an emotional conflict for Katniss to deal with rather than occupying essential places in the narrative.

Katniss, too, tends to lack emotional depth except when it’s necessary to advance the plot. Part of this, I suspect, arises from the fact this is the first book in a trilogy, and Ms. Collins intends to make Katniss’s emotional development one of the threads that carries through the series. However, this results in Katniss being something of a stock character for much of the book, and she deserves better.

So do the others, and Ms. Collins clearly has the skill to invest depth of character with a few well-chosen words, which makes the shortfall of same doubly frustrating. The tribute child Rue, Katniss’s mother and sister–ironically, secondary characters fare better than the main ones, hinting at emotional and psychological depths that just aren’t there in Katniss and her male friends.

That said, The Hunger Games should be recommended to and discussed with young readers, in part because it’s an excellent gateway to more complex works like Brave New World and 1984, and in particular the hard-to-find Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here. If that’s too big a jump, there’s always David Brin’s The Postman, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or Joan Upton Hall’s Arturo el Rey.

The Hunger Games is entertaining and provokes consideration of the consequences of both abuse of power and surrender to oppression. For readers both young and not-so who don’t ingest a lot of speculative fiction, it will more than satisfy.

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