Sunday, January 30, 2011

Catching Fire

Catching Fire is the sequel to The Hunger Games and the 2nd in Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games YA action trilogy.

Following their victory in Panem’s Hunger Games (a form of gladiatorial combat that pits teenagers from different districts against each in a deadly game of survival), Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark have returned home to District 12 to settle into a far more privileged life than the one they left behind when they were first selected to compete.

Winning the guarantees the victors and their families better living conditions than that experienced by most of those in the district. Despite having a nicer house and plenty to eat Katniss misses her pre Games life. The teenager regularly returns to her old house and goes hunting in the woods adjacent to the district with her friend, and part of the series love triangle; Gale.

It is after one of these trips that she arrives home to find Panem’s leader; the creepy and menacing President Snow (his breath smells of blood, ewwww!) waiting for her. The country’s dictatorial leader did not like the way in which Katniss won the Games and made the Gamesmakers look foolish in the process (the Head Gamesmaker apparently lost his life because of it), he’s also concerned that the girl seems to have become a hero and a revolutionary in the process and gives her a ‘friendly’ warning to watch herself, because he will be watching her.

The first indication of the crackdown is District 12’s generally friendly head Peacekeeper; Darius, being replaced by the brutal Romulus Stead, whose first act is to viciously whip Gale for a minor offence that would have been overlooked by Darius. Katniss also chances upon 2 refugees from a rebelling district who tell her that they’re headed for the deserted District 13, their belief is that it is not uninhabited as the Capitol has told people ever since they destroyed the district after a failed revolution 75 years ago.

During their victory tour of the country Katniss comes to realise how much her manner of winning the Games and her relationship with Peeta mean to the people of Panem, she also sees firsthand that her very presence can inspire the people to rebellion, something that has consequences for the inhabitants of Panem’s oppressed districts.

The Capitol’s response to the brewing rebellion is to announce the 3rd Quarter Quell (a celebration held every 25 years to remind the people of the Capitol’s victory over District 13), a special Hunger Games that will feature winners from previous Games, one male, one female, as Katniss is District 12’s only surviving female winner, she knows that this guarantees her reentry to the arena, predictably Peeta volunteers to take the place of Haymitch Abernethy (District 12’s only other living male winner) when the old drunk’s name is picked.

From that point on Catching Fire is largely a repeat of The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta go to the Capitol along with their chaperone; fusspot Effie and mentor; Haymitch. Interestingly enough they’re the only 2 characters that seem to have an entourage and I had to ask myself why. What is because technically they were still minors? They encounter other past winners, the only ones covered in any detail beyond their names and district are: the charismatic Finnick Odair from District 4 the Games youngest ever winner, the elderly Mags also from District 4 (as Mags is over 80 and crippled this stretched credibility beyond breaking point for me), tough as nails Johanna from District 7 and the inoffensive Wiress and Beetee from District 3, the duo are nicknamed Nuts and Volts by Johanna for their eccentricity and technical know how. You know from this that these are the ones that will either help or hinder Katniss and Peeta in their fight in the arena. There’s a brief training period in which Haymitch attempts to counsel his charges and Katniss predictably refuses to listen. Then they’re shot back into the arena to revisit the nightmare again. Collins tries really hard in the arena scenes to make it scary and exciting all at the same time, and for the most part she succeeds, but there is still an air of ‘seen this all before’ about it. People fight, people die and it isn’t spoiling anything to let you know right now that Katniss survives. Although Suzanne Collins ends Catching Fire on a cliffhanger and I’m going to read Mockingjay (the concluding volume) to find out what happens I knew what was going to happen well ahead of time and the ending didn’t hold any surprises for me.

Catching Fire is largely like one of the many sequels currently beloved of Hollywood. It’s rather like she took all of the popular elements from the first book and repackaged them for the second one. I felt she would have been better served by forgetting about the whole arena scenario and concentrating on the rebellion of the Districts, the trilogy felt headed that way from the moment Katniss metaphorically gave the raised middle finger to the Capitol when she blackmailed them into giving her and Peeta the victory at the end of The Hunger Games. This second book was largely unnecessary.

That’s not to say there aren’t some good moments in Catching Fire, the action is tense and well written. Finnick is an engaging anti-hero. I’m still not entirely sure whose side he’s on. The hints that the inspiration for the series came from ancient Rome. Collins has gone on record as admitting this, but little things like the drink that makes people throw up so they can continue gorging are rather amusing. It is also addictive despite it’s flaws, which I’ll cover briefly next.

There are some problems from the first book that are still present: the love scenes are excruciating and really clumsily written, it’s hard to work out exactly why Katniss is conflicted between Peeta and Gale as they are essentially the same character, the main difference being that Gale can hunt and Peeta is an artist. I also find myself asking if the Capitol is as technologically advanced as the Games suggest they are why do they feel the need to keep their citizens in line by forcing them to live almost medieval existences? Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned to use the technology to either oppress or benefit their populace. I know, I know, YA novel, don’t think about it too hard. It bugs me however, and even more annoying I’m hooked enough to keep reading.

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