May 10, 2011

[Books] The Hunger Games

The Hunger GamesI've made reference to what I've termed as the "Post-Harry Potter universe" that we live in now. You know what I mean - this renaissance of young adult fiction writing spurred on by a steady demand for adventure stories geared towards younger (but not too young!) audiences with publishing houses like Scholastic being one of the primary driving forces. This is not necessarily a bad thing given it has encouraged kids to read more in this age of the internet and console gaming, and there have been a few gems out there.

At the same time, a lot of these books aren't too bad thus you get a lot of adult readers also taking the plunge in reading these stories. I guess there's that eternal child in all of us that finds it easy to appreciate a good story, especially those that seem like the natural evolutionary descendants of the fairy tales of old.

However I think that there are a few books out there that are clearly mis-labeled in terms of genre or the whole young adult classification. If anything, I can see that a lot of newer authors are getting lumped into this category in the interests of further developing the market. Thus more and more I can see how some writers who are clearly equipped to tackle mainstream science fiction and fantasy may end up having some great stories hidden amongst the young adult titles if you take the time to look and get past your own prejudices.

The Hunger Games is the first of three young adult science fiction books in the series of the same name. The books were all written by Suzanne Collins, a television script writer who previously wrote The Underland Chronicles. And yes, I'm calling this book a science fiction title given it's clear depiction of a post-apocalyptic society.

Katniss EverdeenImage via WikipediaIn a future where much of North America has collapsed due to some unnamed break-down of society, we are introduced to one Katniss Everdeen of District 12. The districts work to provide the resources needed by the Capitol of the nation of Panem in a very delineated class system. Every year, the districts are forced to select one boy and one girl to be sent to the Capitol for the Hunger Games, a reality TV style event where all 24 teens must battle it out to the death until there is only one person left standing. All this is done to remind the District of the power of the Capitol given a previous uprising many years ago.

For this 74th Hunger Games, Katniss' younger sister Primrose is the girl initially selected for District 12 until Katniss volunteer to take her place. Thus we follow Katniss and Peeta, the son of a baker, on their journey to the Capitol and their preparations for the Hunger Games. But the twist here is that Peeta reveals his unrequited love for Katniss on live television, thus adding another angle of difficulty for Katniss since she knows she'll eventually have to face the fact that she'll need to kill him if she wants to survive.

At first I was hesitant to get into this series since it felt like just another attempt to cash in on younger readers in these post Harry Potter times that we live in. Thus I largely ignored the book despite more and more of my geek friends picking up the title. It became harder and harder to ignore the whole thing until the last book in the series was featured in io9's list of The 15 Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2010. So I finally invested in the series and here we are.

The book is pretty ambitious in terms of the topics it ends up tackling. Here we have a post-apocalyptic society with very strict controls on resources balanced by an opulent and excessive capital state lording it over the subservient districts. We have all the elements the delicate balance of power between the working class and the rulers, we have all the dire elements of survival in extreme situations and the odd role of the media in such a situation. The worlds of the districts are extremely different from the somewhat idyllic realm of the Capitol with their self-absorbed citizens who treat such a violent tradition as a festive sporting event.

Katniss is a remarkably strong female protagonist - which seems to happen more in young adult fiction than in mainstream science fiction books, but that may be just my impression of things at the moment. In the book she's depicted as a girl who has certainly survived hard times. The death of her father plus the virtual loss of her mother to depression meant needing to support her family at a much younger age. She's fiercely independent, a skilled hunter and one who thinks quickly on her feet. These qualities make her a shoe-in to win the games (at least from the reader's perspective), but it's still interesting to see how the book manages to resolve things.

True, there are sloppier parts of the writing that you can forgive in a young adult book and only really complain about were this mainstream science fiction. But at the same time, that does get me thinking about how it may provide an opportunity to more new writers to try their hand in this arena before going for the bigger adult market. This book was a nice balance of both elements since Collins is clearly unforgiving in terms of what she expects her readers to be able to understand. Thus she pulls no punches in describing her post-apocalyptic world and the highly violent nature of the games themselves.

The romantic angle initially felt very cheesy to me since it seemed like something that belonged in the likes of the Twilight Saga or something. But despite the ridiculous premise, it totally works out in the end and I can fully appreciate why it was brought into play. So yes, I'm asking you to endure that arc for a bit longer so you can get to the really good part of the book.

The Hunger Games certainly surprised me in terms of its depth and complexity that was nicely coupled with some great action and adventure. It gets 4.5 insane death traps in the Hunger Games arena out of a possible 5.

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