Hands down, the most memorable book I've read within the past few years is Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games
. CATCHING FIRE is the sequel, and it right away plonks you into all the things that made THE HUNGER GAMES such a terrific, terrific read. Suzanne Collins' meticulous world-building introduced us to a post-apocalyptic future in which North America has ceased to exist. Its remnants came to be called Panem, a nation comprising of twelve districts governed with an iron fist by the Capitol city. The Hunger Games is an annually held event which pits lottery-selected children (called "tributes") drawn from each district and compelled to kill each other until only one is left standing. The Hunger Games, established to commemorate the Capitol's ruthless stamping down of an uprising many years ago, is broadcast to all twelve districts with their residents forced to watch as their youths are slaughtered one by one. It's intended as punishment and as a lesson.
*** Serious SPOILERS from here on out ***
Against all odds, young Katniss Everdeen from impoverished District 12 has survived the harrowing Hunger Games and, along the way, won the hearts of the twelve Districts. As reigning champion Katniss's lot in life has improved drastically, and she no longer has to forage and illegally hunt in the woods to feed herself and her mother and little sister Prim. Months have elapsed since the Hunger Games, but Katniss, now seventeen, finds herself still having to be on guard. The Capitol, it seems, hasn't forgotten her tiny acts of rebellion. One strategy Katniss had employed was to pretend to a romance with fellow tribute Peeta, a baker's son also from District 12. This got the audience on their side and was instrumental in Katniss and Peeta's both making it thru the Hunger Games.
But, even months later, with the Capitol's eyes ever on her, Katniss and Peeta must continue to act mutually smitten - and, horrifyingly for Katniss, they may have to maintain the act for the rest of their lives. Except, for Peeta, it was never an act. I have to say, by the way, that I was pretty indifferent to Peeta in THE HUNGER GAMES, but that I warmed up to him in CATCHING FIRE. He is, after all, a pretty likeable dude, even if he's so noble it's almost unbelievable. And, for Katniss, there's the added dilemma of her childhood friend Gale barely talking to her ever since she returned home. Romantic triangle? Without a doubt. Katniss and Peeta eventually embark on the traditional Victory Tour of the Districts, and, in Katniss and Peeta's travels, you can sense the story arc Collins is building up to, the tiny cracks in the Capitol's ironclad rule. Particularly poignant and dangerous is District 11's reaction to Katniss's appearance.
In reading THE HUNGER GAMES I was very curious about Katniss's home, so it's gratifying that Collins spends some time exploring it. Things get really desperate for the destitute mining community of District 12 as the Capitol even more relentlessly exerts its influence over the districts, and again this perhaps ties into what Katniss may have unwittingly sparked in her time in the Hunger Games. I was wondering where Suzanne Collins was going to go with the sequel, although I figured it would have to involve her branching out into the bigger picture. Katniss's defiance during the Games very much did not go unnoticed and, in fact, may have fostered seeds of unrest within the oppressed people of Panem. Beneath the skin of the districts, something angry is simmering.
The Victory Tour marches along, and then it's time again for the annual Hunger Games. Except that the upcoming Hunger Games marks its 75th year, and that's all kinds of ominous. The Quarter Quell is nigh, taking place every 25 years and notorious for introducing vicious twists into the Games' rules. This time, the Capitol arrives at sort of an all-star version of the Hunger Games, bringing back all the previous survivors to compete. For the alarmed and very frightened Katniss, it's time to go back to the arena.
THE HUNGER GAMES is one of the best, most moving novels I've ever read and, in her writing the rest of the trilogy, my thought was that Suzanne Collins would've had to make a deal with the devil to match the emotional richness and impact and sheer readability of that novel. And CATCHING FIRE comes close. It's not quite as up there in packing that strong emotional punch, but Collins weaves in enough indelible moments to make this a very worthwhile sequel. Katniss continues to be an awesome character, vulnerable and sad but very capable and an absolute deadeye with the bow and arrow.
One minor quibble with her return to the Games and partnering up with other tributes is that less attention seems to be focused on Katniss (although it's Katniss telling the story in first person narrative). Also, these other tributes aren't as memorable or as wistful as the little girl Rue, the appealing District 11 tribute from the first book. I still marvel at just how moving that passage was when Katniss said her final goodbye to Rue with flowers and then saluted her with a traditional gesture from home. Katniss wasn't thinking of it, but that act smacked of being fairly subversive. No wonder the Capitol grew concerned.
As CATCHING FIRE expands its storyline, I think we're all waiting for Katniss to take on a more involved role in the coming rebellion. Although, for now, it's perhaps understandable that she's more concerned about what's going on around her on a personal scale. But, hopefully, she sheds her passiveness. As it is, she's treated more as a figurehead for the revolt. If the ending is any indication, Katniss Everdeen is about to get really involved. And the third books also looks to have Gale more in the center of things.
In terms of sheer adventure and thrills, Suzanne Collins really knows how to step it up, especially once Katniss re-enters the arena. The author comes up with some really messed up perils for the tributes, plus there's the added nuance of the contestants all being past champions. This time, Katniss isn't contending with inexperienced children.
I do have a problem with the way the book ends. There were signposts along the way, so it's not like it came out of left field, but still I feel that the plot switcheroo comes along too abruptly and feels rushed, and so there's a jarring whiplash effect.
But, above all, CATCHING FIRE is splendid stuff and a riveting read. Tautly paced, with Collins making you feel that things are about to explode on a larger scale, even as Katniss tries her best to fend for her own little corner. There are moments which are poignant and uplifting, but then these are followed promptly by moments of horror and heartbreak and sudden chilling violence, and these turnarounds leave you sort of twisting in the wind. There's no denying, though, that one quietly powerful moment when, Katniss, who had been thinking hard of taking her family and friends and skedaddling, decides to stay and tough it out. I felt like cheering when she declares: "I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stay right here and cause all kinds of trouble." That's the girl on fire.