I decided to review these books as a whole series, rather than individually. There’s problems inherent to doing the review this way (spoilers and hints, so I’ll try to be a bit veiled about it all), but I felt it was important to give a comprehensive review of the series overall. This is for two reasons – the first being that the series attracts many younger readers (I’ve seen kids as young as eleven buy the series) and there’s so much I think it’s important for these kids’ parents to know about what their kids are reading. The other, simpler reason is that these books can be inhaled in the space of a few days each (for me, a slow adult reader) and their moreish qualities mean you’re unlikely to just read one. You’ll finish the series, whether you like it or not.
The first book, The Hunger Games introduces us to our heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives in a world ruled by a dictatorship (headed by President Snow in The Capitol), which has split the realm into twelve districts. Each district specializes in providing a good or service to The Capitol and its wealthy population, while the citizens of each district struggle to live. As a yearly reminder of the districts’ dependence on The Capitol there exists “The Hunger Games”. A boy and a girl from every district are thrown together in a huge arena (it could be a desert, a jungle, anything) and forced to kill one another. The last person standing wins the right to live, and a comfortable standard of living for themselves and their family.
Something about the books really reminded me of the Tomorrow When The War Began series – possibly something about young people and survival; really basic instincts mixed with all that comes with being a teenager. I think my enjoyment of the books came from whatever in me enjoyed the Tomorrow… books.
The murder thing is pretty full-on. Katniss is a reluctant participant in The Hunger Games, offering herself up only to spare her younger sister. So not only is there murder, but it’s less malicious than it is “kill-or-be-killed”. The deaths of “tributes” (district children involved in the games) are described in detail, and the gruesome nature of the deaths and the situations created by the gamemakers to torture the tributes is like something out of a nightmare. It’s really good reading, don’t get me wrong. I loved it, in an awful way. But eleven year-olds reading this kind of thing? Heavy.
Both Katniss and her district partner, Peeta, express their desire to stop being a piece in The Capitol’s games. Throughout the series this plants the seeds of a revolution, earning them very dangerous enemies in some camps and friends in others.
The second book (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) sends Katniss and Peeta back to the arena, and the shift in the tributes’ attitudes to killing one another make for some really interesting, often touching, reading. Of the three books, though, I felt like this second book was the least enjoyable. It was still good, but things certainly picked up again in book three.
Book three (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) is based entirely on the final show-down between The Capitol and the districts. This book was really quite troubling for me, with themes touching on murder, refugees, the loss of everything that accompanies war, sexual slavery, genetic modification, trauma… The list goes on.
The Hunger Games series is really tricky – it’s not an adults’ series, it’s not aimed at a regular adult fiction-reading audience. But it’s definitely not something for kids on that bridge between children’s older readers and young adult novels. I can’t stress enough the importance of the maturity warning on the third book. If you’ve got kids below, say, fifteen that are reading this book – read it first.
Interestingly, like a other successful YA book series, The Hunger Games has been released with multiple covers. While they haven’t been expressly marketed as “children’s” and “adults'” covers, one is definitely more acceptable for adults to be seen reading. A strange phenomenon, that…
Okay, the political stuff aside…
Like so many great addictive novels (arguably, every novel, but we’ll not get into that now), there’s a love triangle at the centre of the books. Katniss goes into the arena with Peeta, who makes it his business to keep her alive. Back home awaits Gale, her best friend and possible love interest. While reading this a friend asked me if I was “on Team Peeta or Team Gale?” – and I realized it’s the same love triangle we’ve seen in other grossly popular YA novels, eg Harry Potter (Hermione/Harry/Ron) and Twilight (Bella/Jacob/Edward). That’s not to detract from it at all – it’s great reading, and you’ll find yourself emotionally invested in both the boys, torn as to which Katniss should choose. And with the film coming out on the 23rd of March, the addition of some pretty attractive (is that ok? Are they too young to be attractive?) actors as Peeta and Gale, the Team Peeta/Team Gale question will get even harder to answer.
I did find the wrap-up of the series a bit lacking. In a way, Collins has depicted the effects of trauma really well, leaving Katniss scarred both physically and emotionally. However, it also feels like there’s a bit of a need for a “happy” ending after all the horrors of the books, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the ways a few situations were wrapped up. Actually, throughout the books a few things really displeased me as a reader, such as who died and how they went. My emotional reaction to deaths did prove one thing though – I’d become really invested in what happened to those characters. Perhaps Collins is trying to balance this bad (almost too real) stuff by giving readers some happy closure, but after all the shock and trauma it just doesn’t ring true. But really… A unsatisfying final few chapters after three whole books of Awesome isn’t too bad.
Just a quick note: don’t discount these as disposable crap because of their popularity. I have a habit of doing this, and I’m making a concerted effort to not be a book snob. The Hunger Games seems to be the next big thing post-Twilight, and there’s a reason for that. They’re good.