From the first page of this book, I was completely
enthralled. It was written with such breadth of description, suspense,
determination and character. Some minor flaws start to show up near the
end of the book, but they don't detract from how impressive it really
I haven't been taken in by a book in such a way since I read
Ender's Game. The book is written from the
first person, in the present tense, so it gives a completely different
feel to the story than the usual kind of story, narrated by someone
detached from the main characters, in the past tense. Here, the main
character doesn't know what is coming, so nothing can really prepare us.
The gift of this story, though, is in its vivid description. Every
emotion, every detail of Katniss' surroundings are given in such a way
that feels completely natural, and it gives the reader a reference for
everything. When Katniss and Gale are out hunting in the first few
pages, it feels completely real.
The world is a post-apocalyptic one, where a new nation has been built
upon the remains of North America. The Capitol is in the Rocky
Mountains, surrounded by twelve district colonies. Katniss is from
District 12. There used to be a thirteenth, but it was completely
destroyed by the Capitol during the uprisings. Since then, with twelve
districts providing food and raw materials, Capitol has grown more
powerful and plush, while the Districts have grown poorer. District 12,
which mines coal, is one of the poorest.
After the uprisings, the Capitol enacted the Hunger Games. Every year,
two people are chosen from each district to fight each other to the
death. It is barbaric, but some districts prepare for it all year long,
and everything is televised. Everybody is required to watch. All this,
because it comes from Katniss' point of view, is given in anger- and
resentment- filled snippets, but it is easy enough to piece together.
Katniss' world is given in such a way that nothing is actually told in
story form, but rather she describes little pieces of her world and the
reader can put it together from what is told. It is taken for granted
that the reader already knows this world, which is impossible on a first
read, but it gives us the chance to explore it with her, rather than
being told what it is. I love that kind of assumption, as it doesn't
allow the story to stop in order to tell some history. Only a talented
writer can do this effectively.
When Katniss' younger sister is chosen for the Hunger Games, Katniss
volunteers instead. She has been hunting and providing for her sister
and mother since her father was killed in a mine explosion years ago.
Although the games scare her to death, she knows that she has a much
better chance at surviving than Prim would. The other person chosen from
District 12 is Peeta, a boy roughly her age who was kind to her once,
giving her bread from the bakery his family owns, and incurring the
wrath of his mother.
Throughout the training and the games, it is obvious that Peeta is
infatuated with Katniss, but she can't take love seriously, vowing that
she would never bring a child into this kind of world, either. So while
she can pretend at love, she thinks Peeta is feigning, too, trying to
trick her into thinking him good-natured, so he can stab her in the back
later. Because there can only be one winner.
The training is interesting, because it gives Katniss a taste of the
upper class world in Capitol. There, people treat the Games as a reality
TV show, cheering on the violent deaths, and making them seem
expendable. She gets her own make-up artist, who dresses her and Peeta
in fire, and makes the world love her. Because the more people who love
her, the more will sponsor her with things she needs inside the Games,
such as food, medicine, and so on.
Their trainer is former winner of the games Haymitch, who is always
drunk -and who wouldn't be after surviving such a contest? I find it
amazing that District 12 has had two such winners at all. But I guess
it's easier to survive if you're from a district that has nothing, to
begin with. As Katniss observes, the people from the better-off
districts have a harder time when easy food starts to disappear.
Inside the Hunger Games, Peeta inexplicably joins a group from the
better-off districts, the Career Tributes. Unfortunately, it is never
explained why he tricked them, or more importantly, how he did so, or
how he was able to kill the girl on that first night. He was considered
to be weak before then.
The obvious strategy for Katniss to follow is to let the others kill
each other off, and then pick off the last one. But that, of course, is
not always possible, especially when they marked her as a target of
choice. Katniss uses her forest skills well, making camp in a tree,
avoiding stupid mistakes such as lighting a fire at night, and even sets
traps and hunts for food. It takes her a while to find water, but once
she does so, she stays near it for the remainder of the games.
The numbers of the contestants dwindle quickly. We don't get to see all
the deaths, which probably would have been boring, and Katniss couldn't
have been a witness to them all, anyway. When the games themselves get
boring, the gamekeepers throw in some surprises, like a horrendous
wildfire that brings the remaining contestants together when they seem
After that, Katniss is treed by the Career Tributes. Fortunately, she
finds a friend in Rue, a younger girl from District 11, who shows her a
nest of tracker jacker bees, which were bred during the previous war to
disable people and cause them to hallucinate, and sometimes die. Katniss
dislodges it, and while two bees come after her, causing severe
hallucinations in the coming days, two people are killed because of the
stings, and the others are off her tail for days more.
At this point, Peeta is disengaged from the Careers, because he saves
Katniss' life against Cato, the lead Career. Katniss went back to the
site of her treeing to get the bow she saw on one of the dead girls, and
Cato showed up. Peeta is nearly killed, and ends up surviving with a
gangrenous cut on his leg, by hiding in a remote area submerged
completely in the mud. He was probably going to die before Katniss
Katniss actually partnered up with the girl Rue, who showed her all
sorts of things about trees, bees, medicinal leaves, and mockingjays,
which could repeat entire conversations or songs. They used to be spies
during the District uprising (and is interestingly the name of the third
book in this trilogy), but the people in Rue's district used them for
communication. From a fruit tree plantation, Rue easily climbed trees
and jumped from one to the next.
There is a terrific sequence where Katniss destroys the hoard of food
and provisions the Careers had created with all the stuff that was in
the arena. An expert marksman with a bow and arrow, she ignites the
landmines protecting them by felling a bag of apples, one by one.
Another tribute dies because of his failure to protect the stash.
Unfortunately, Rue is caught and killed while creating a distraction for
Katniss' attempt. When Katniss finds her, she mourns her, and
immediately kills the boy responsible for her death. That is Katniss'
first and only direct kill of the games.
I had been wondering if she could do it, and how. In cold blood, or
self-defense? Dropping the bees nest on the girls was indirect, as she
mentions. Killing out of revenge is another matter. But after the first
kill, I wondered how easy it would be for her to kill again. The author
spares her the decision, which I found to be wrong, but it didn't
detract much from the story.
At this point, the story slows down a little, as the gamekeepers change
the rule, allowing two people to win the game, if they are from the same
district. Given the way Katniss and Peeta have been playing up the love
story angle, it is obvious that this is popular with the audience. It
seemed like a cheat to me, until the end. She nurtures Peeta almost back
to health, but she knows he will die without intervention.
The gamekeepers intervene by sending supplies to all the tributes, but
all at a central location, so they would have to fight for it. One
tribute is killed, but it draws out the one reclusive tribute, who
spares Katniss' life only because she avenged Rue. That didn't seem like
a cheat, because he went on to fight Cato, but eventually lost.
The medicine that Katniss picks up at the "banquet" saves Peeta's life,
and he nurses her back to health after her altercation at the banquet.
But when they have sufficiently recovered, the gamekeepers drain the
river they've been living off of, so they are forced to go back to the
central location for the final fight. I thought Peeta and Katniss should
have fought Cato, but instead, they are all forced to flee from the dead
tributes, brought back to a horrible life as some sort of werewolf
creature. As Katniss is trying to find a way to dispatch Cato, the
Career takes the decision from her, holding Peeta hostage. But Katniss'
proficiency with the bow saves them both, and Cato is swarmed by the
zombies. Katniss kills him out of pity instead of anger.
At this point, the games should have ended, except
that the gamekeepers change the rule again, so that only one person can
win! Katniss' anger is palpable through her exhaustion, and she and
Peeta agree to commit suicide on poisonous berries instead. So the rules
are changed again at the last minute, but the gamekeepers are furious.
For the rest of the book, Katniss has to pretend she is desperately in
love with Peeta. Her true feelings are mixed, because she has started to
wonder what kind of husband Gale would have made. But at every turn, she
almost lost her heart each time she thought that Peeta would die.
When Peeta finds out she has been half-faking it, he
becomes silent and withdrawn, and who can blame him? He thought she was
in love with her. The book ends in a cliffhanger as they reach the train
station of District 12, and the two are almost completely estranged...
So there were a few disappointing aspects of the book,
such as the slowness when Peeta was recovering (the love story,
essentially), the contrived nature of Katniss only having to murder one
person, while indirectly killing others and killing her final adversary
in pity, and the cliffhanger ending. The one piece that I found
contrived was rescinded near the end, the gamekeepers obviously filling
two hearts with hope and then dashing it, in temporarily allowing two
winners to the Games. It almost still seems contrived, but not quite.
But all the slow points do nothing to detract from
what is an absolutely amazing novel. If it is meant for young adults, it
is perfectly told for older adults, as well. I can't wait for the second
book in the series.