Call this a two-for-one book talk. A word of warning, in fact I have two words for those who read the books and not, and for those who may have just tuned into the blog. Regarding the books, I have a big, fat, spoiler warning to pass along. If you have not read the books and don`t want to feel spoiled, I suggest leave now and come back later. I have spoiled something for someone in the past and some people really want to feel surprised. In fact I felt surprised by the turn of events in the novels. It`s a great feeling to drop a jaw in shock and Suzanne Collins deserves applause for the way she twisted and turned the plot without taking out the soul of the novel.
The second warning comes from the way my brain works. While reading both novels, my mind cast back to another one in my childhood. I may zig, zag, and digress with all of it to make a point. I may even go back to clean up the entry if I lost a point.
Catching Fire leaves off after the events of The Hunger Games as Peeta and Katniss settle into new homes and lives as victors. The win does not come without a price as President Snow warns Katniss the ‘berry stunt’ inspired rebellion among the districts. He also wants a more convincing show of love between the two victors–or else. Middle books, or second to last books, usually falter as they set up the events in the last book. It’s the criticism heard often about Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince as a novel with nothing happening except set up after set up. Collins does do some setting up amid deepening the triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale plus throwing in the Quarter Quell twist to introduce previous winners of the games. The Quarter Quell in Catching Fire gives a more deadly version of the reality show all-star addition. The Capitol means business regarding its control over Panem and once protected victors come back into the competition they left behind.
The game in the middle novel play out in much the same way, but feels more condensed than in the first book. What Collins emphasizes is Katniss grasping the consequences of her choices in the previous games. Katniss, and Peeta no longer stumble into situations construed as rebellion, like giving part of their prize money to Rue and Thresh’s families in District 11, but consciously making a stand during their private sessions with the game makers. Readers also get the sense, thanks to Plutarch Heavensbee’s Mockingjay watch; the Capitol itself chafes under President Snow’s control. Readers see Katniss grasp at new facts and information like District 13 perhaps still existing and the blood breath smelled on President Snow. Collins keeps the pace going for the real climax of the novel as Katniss gets taken out of the arena, Peeta gets captured, and Gale discloses District 12 firebomb destruction.
District 12’s bombing had the same impact as J.K. Rowling’s decision to kill Hedwig in the last Harry Potter novel as we know things will get intense, but touching a major setting or character proves the writer means business. Collins wanted to show the ugly side of war and nothing gets spared. I also saw Katniss slowly get unhinged and see her helplessness as a political pawn. Nothing prepared me for the last book Mockingjay.
In Mockingjay we do find out District 13 did survive, agreeing to remain silent in exchange for Panem having control over the other districts. (Clue number one District 13 is not a utopia itself.) Katniss returns to District 12 to see the burnt remains of her people and their homes, while she agrees to President Coin’s plan as the face of the revolution. What unravels in the final instalment involves Katniss once again the helpless pawn for the cause of good, making errors in judgment as the new figurehead, while getting a sense President Coin is no better than Snow himself. If I had to summarize the novel in a word, I would say ‘potent’.
In Mockingjay Collins puts her main character through physical and emotional horror fighting against The Capitol. A friend of mine remarked in most novels, the main character emerges as the warrior, present in fighting the final battle. In the novel Katniss does no such thing as the plot is more internal than external. One criticism of the final novel is the plot seems not quite as tight as the first two. If people prefer their final books to tie up loose ends in a tidy bow, then this book will disappoint. What drives this novel, as in all three, are the characters themselves. We see Peeta as both noble and wily enough to play the game. We see Gale as someone in love with Katniss and blind to his own rage. We also see the impact war has on individuals. The games themselves amputate a part of the victor’s spirit much like Frodo returns from this quest with a severed finger as a reminder things will never be the same. Katniss and Peeta still have nightmares while Finnick Odair discloses a life of victory means more slavery for a Hunger Games Champion. When Finnick talks about Snow prostituting him to influential friends, I didn’t lose sight of Snow’s willingness to use anyone, or anything, to keep power. Katniss discovers Coin pretty much does the same thing under the lie of bringing power to the oppressed. At least President Snow knows himself to not sugar coat things for Katniss.
Reading Mockingjay with its intense tone in narration and plot, took me back to a previous novel that changed my approach to reading novels. As an elementary school student, I read many novels with good guys winning and bad guys getting their due. Lloyd Alexander’s The High King shows a series climax in thrilling fashion yet demonstrates the price paid for victory. I saw beloved characters die while helplessly watched Taran shove his grief aside to deal with the dark enemy. Alexander later did the same thing in the final book of the Westmark Trilogy entitled The Beggar Queen. Novels sometimes break our hearts to give us the happy ending we desire. It’s not for cruelty, but to show sacrifices made for a cause often significantly change a character, leaving the person scarred by the experienced and living with decisions made along the way. In Mockingjay Katniss Everdeen will emerge as a classic character to take her place along Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins in the pantheon of influential fiction characters.