Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: Catching Fire (Book 2 of The Hunger Games)

Catching Fire (2009), Suzanne Collins. Hardcover, 391 pages.

Summary:  Katniss, having survived one brutal gladiator-style competition, finds that she is no more free of the clutches of the oppressive Capitol than she was before. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences:
     I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. My muscles are clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at this moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked are not in my favor.
     "I'd like to go to the Cornucopia and watch. Just to make sure we're right about the clock," says Finnick. It seems as good a plan as any. Besides, I wouldn't mind the chance of going over the weapons again. And there are six of us now. even if you count Beetee and Wiress out, we've got four good fighters. It's so different from where I was last year at this point, doing everything on my own. Yes, it's great to have allies as long as you can ignore the thought that you'll have to kill them.

     Beetee and Wiress will probably find some way to die on their own. If we have to run from something, how far would they get? Johanna, frankly, I could easily kill if it came down to protecting Peeta. Or maybe even just to shut her up. What I really need is for someone to take out Finnick for me, since I don't think I can do it personally. Not after all he's done for Peeta. I think about maneuvering him into some kind of encounter with the Careers. It's cold, I know. But what are my options? Now that we know about the clock, he probably won't die in the jungle, so someone's going to have to kill him in battle.

     Because this is so repellent to think about, my mind frantically tries to change topics. But the only thing that distracts me from my current situation is fantasizing about killing President Snow. Not very pretty daydreams for a seventeen-year-old girl, I guess, but very satisfying.

Writing Quality: 4/10

Depth of Concept: 4/10

Rounded Characters: 4/10

Well-Developed World: 4/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10

Overall Recommendation: 4/10


Writing Quality: 4/10. The writing quality of this second novel in the series is no different than the first. So I won't belabor the point, you can just go back and see what I wrote for The Hunger Games. I'll just add that Katniss' internal monologues are as boring and insipid as ever. And the first-person is still glaringly awkward, as you'll note in this example:
I think my tongue has frozen and speech will be impossible, so I surprise myself by answering back in a steady voice, "Yes, I think that would save time."
Or, from the excerpt, the bit where she explains that "because this is so repellent to think about, my mind frantically tries to change topics." The way she describes things, she often seems to be floating outside of her own body, an awkward and casual observer.

Depth of Concept: 4/10. I raised this category one point over my review of The Hunger Games simply because Collins bothers to describe a little more of the unrest and political/social climate in the districts. None of it is very insightful, but at least it's addressed, which means that any interpretation of the novel by necessity must include some accounting for large-scale oppression, sacrifices, and rebellion. But it's as frustrating as ever that Katniss never seems to think she has any other option than to kill for the pleasure of the viewing public. She's sad about it, but the fact that she can't even imagine refusing demonstrates a real gap in logic that's hard to understand. I keep thinking of the book Alive by Piers Paul Read, which details the story of a bunch of plane crash survivors in the Andes. With no rescue on the way, the survivors have to decide whether they are willing to eat each other to survive. Some are willing, some are not. But everyone considers the choice carefully. In Catching Fire, the fact that Katniss can't even conceive of the option of refusal as a path to rebellion, and peace of mind, seems surprising. It makes her a much weaker character than many fans make her out to be. And since she's still thinking about killing her friends in the arena much as she did in the first book, it's clear that the experience hasn't really taught her anything.

Rounded Characters: 4/10. I raised this one point over my review of The Hunger Games. I don't know if it was warranted. At a 4, it's still sub-par, and painful to dwell on, but Collins does spend a little more time exploring the relationships between characters. Even more than before, I'm irritated by the way Katniss wallows in angst regarding her love triangle, but at least we get a little more depth from it. We still end up with a character like President Snow who starts monologuing like a cliched villain the moment he meets Katniss, and we still learn nothing about him other than he smells faintly of blood, whatever that means. You almost expect him to be carrying a fluffy mean-eyed cat that he strokes as he talks. We learn some interesting things about characters like Haymitch and Plutarch and Cinna, but you'd still be hard-pressed to go back and find any inkling of these secrets in the early chapters, and certainly not in the first book. There's never any real explanation for Katniss' affection for her prep team, the team that makes her look pretty on the way to her death. What does she like about them? And Katniss herself is full of contradiction. For instance, she says at one point that her passion for "designing clothes" is nonexistent, but we still get a multitude of florid descriptions of every piece she wears, and how beautiful she finds every piece Cinna makes for her, both in this and the first novel. It seems that Collins sometimes tries to separate Katniss from attachment to fashion and the material things of the Capitol, but just can't quite do the job in a way that makes sense. A review for Catching Fire on Collins' web page puts it this way: “Gladiator” meets “Project Runway” in Suzanne Collins’s gripping dystopian novel “The Hunger Games” and its new sequel, “Catching Fire.”  

Well-Developed World: 4/10. I rated this one point lower than in my review of The Hunger Games, for a few reasons, despite the fact that we're actually given a lot more information about the world of Panem. To sum it up, there are just too many inconsistencies. First, we're told that President Snow knows about a secret kiss that was shared by Katniss and Gale while in the forest, which seems like a no-brainer given how easy it was for the Capitol to have both video and audio watching every breath of the tributes in the arena. But Katniss and others still somehow feel that they can elude the eyes and ears of the Capitol, over and over again, despite being of utmost interest to the powers-that-be. And apparently it works, in a whole slew of inconsistent situations. We're led to believe that the Capitol is virtually all-powerful and all-knowing, and yet a few high-profile bumbling teenagers can avoid its awareness by simply going for a walk as they discuss state secrets? Second, since the Capitol has been set up to be so powerful, able to control minute events and even to edit footage to their advantage, there's no reason it couldn't just kill off Katniss and her troublesome companions and construct some pleasant fiction to explain it. Third, we still get no exploration of what kind of person the average citizen of the Capitol is, or whether Katniss' prep team is indicative of it. Fourth, the idea that the president of an oppressive regime personally conducts business with a hostile seventeen-year-old girl, and that we get no hint of other bureaucrats or intermediate government cronies seems a little far-fetched. I could go on, but you get the idea. The one single detail that I found interesting about the over-the-top habits in the Capitol that Collins could have explored further was the moment she describes people purging in restrooms in order to continue feasting. This could have been a segue into a thoughtful metaphor for excess . . . but it's really only mentioned briefly in passing. Also . . . I still have no idea what kind of population stats are involved in the world of Panem. Thousands?  Millions? Billions? And why are Katniss, Peeta, and the rest allowed to bring emblems of the revolution into the arena?

Page Turner: 6/10. The thing The Hunger Games really had going for it was how gripping a read it was. Most of the novel involved teens hunting each other down and killing each other, and it's hard to look away from that. This novel doesn't get to the arena until the last third of the novel, and it frankly isn't as interesting even when we get there. Still, whatever other faults Collins may have as a prose artist, her prose is still pretty snappy, and the plot moves along at a pretty good pace. While I was frequently rolling my eyes while reading, it was never so bad that I stopped turning the pages. But I never felt like staying up late finishing the book, because there just wasn't the immediacy of danger that made the first novel so suspenseful.

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10. While I was happy to see a little more exploration of the political and social climate in the world of Panem, it was never the sort that made me reconsider any of my beliefs or that made me consider anything from another perspective. And I don't consider myself any sort of expert in studying this sort of thing. I wonder if Collins would have written any differently if she'd had the news items of the Arab Spring to use as a model. A very young person might feel that they're learning something, but as an adult, I didn't feel like there was enough original or complex exploration to keep me thinking very much.

Overall Recommendation: 4/10. I dropped this a point in recommendation for the primary reason that it's just not as gripping as The Hunger Games, which was the main reason I saw for reading that first novel. There are a few things that Catching Fire makes an attempt to address that were lacking in the first book, but the improvements are not enough to really make a difference. 

Books To Compare:  There's a rich tradition of classic novels set in a dystopian/post-apocalyptic world, whether 1984Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451And of course, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the recent Pulitzer Prize winner that makes a really useful comparison point. You also wouldn't want to forget Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game, a popular short story found in many anthologies since it was published in the twenties. Finally, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated for children so that they could learn to rely upon themselves for all of their needs. While Piers Paul Read's story Alive is perhaps not yet a classic, it's a great novel, and would make for a really valuable exploration of life-and-death decisions made within a group of people. Catching Fire doesn't really match up strongly to any of these in terms of writing quality or thoughtfulness, but it very obviously draws on the genre staples and brings the under-appreciated post-apocalyptic genre to the public's eye. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Catching Fire on Amazon.


  1. I refuse to read these books. There are many reasons, but the first one is that they are -not- dystopian, and I'm growing increasingly tired of post-apocalyptic books being designated "dystopian" because dystopian is hot right now. In fact, dystopian is not hot, because none of the current hot dystopian novels are, in fact, dystopian novels.

    1. Although I can't fault your inclination to not read the books, I think a reasonable case can be made for them to demonstrate "dystopias." I just glanced at the all-powerful wikipedia, and this is what it gives:

      "the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian."

      So, repressive and controlled...check. Under the guise of being utopian? Not for the vassal states, perhaps, but I think yes for the Conquering state.

      Still, I wouldn't say this is GOOD dystopian material.

    2. For the society as a whole, there is no guise of being utopian. I think the "guise of utopianism" is actually essential to the genre; otherwise, it serves no purpose. A more literary definition includes that guise as necessary. At least, it did 25 years ago. It may be that that definition is changing, but that doesn't make it right.

  2. When I read this I thought it was a book written specifically for the purpose of being turned into a movie. It has more 'action''s the third and final book that really grinded my gears. I just have to remind myself its YA for the masses and get over it.

    1. *grinded (?) I think I just made that word up--ground.

    2. Not sure I agree about there being more action...though what action there is DOES occur in a wider variety of places and circumstances. So, in that sense, I could see how a movie that just sort of jumps from action scene to action scene would make this appear quite action-packed. I suppose I might also be conflating action and suspense...there was certainly very little suspense in this novel for me.

  3. I suppose there is one thing we can all learn from the Hunger Games (and any other YA) series: Young Adults as a consumer group are a uniform block. They seem to be either all-in or nothing at all. There is no middle ground.

    1. You might be right about that, Ryan. What is perhaps more complicated is how adults who read YA should be categorized, and as part of what consumer block?