Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book Review: Mockingjay (Book 3 of The Hunger Games)

Mockingjay (2010), Suzanne Collins. Hardcover, 400 pages.

Summary: Katniss, the "girl on fire," becomes the conflicted figurehead of a revolution, and finds that it puts all of her loved ones at risk. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood. Over there was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provide a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I orient myself in this sea of gray?
Excerpt:
     Finnick and I try to station ourselves in Command, where surely first word of the rescue will come, but we are barred because serious war business is being carried out. We refuse to leave Special Defense and end up waiting in the hummingbird room for news.

     Making knots. Making knots. No word. Making knots. Tick-tock. This is a clock. Do not think of Gale. Do not think of Peeta. Making knots. We do not want dinner. Fingers raw and bleeding. Finnick finally gives up and assumes the hunched position he took in the arena when the jabberjays attacked. I perfect my miniature noose. The words of the "The Hanging Tree" replay in my head. Gale and Peeta. Peeta and Gale.

     "Did you love Annie right away, Finnick?" I ask.

     "No." A long time passes before he adds, "she crept up on me."

     I search my heart, but at the moment the only person I can feel creeping up on me is Snow.
     It must be midnight, it must be tomorrow when Haymitch pushes open the door. "They're back. We're wanted in the hospital." My mouth opens with a flood of questions that he cuts off with "That's all I know."

STATS

Writing Quality: 4/10

Depth of Concept: 5/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 4/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10
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Overall Recommendation: 5/10


DETAILS

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Since this is the last book in the series, I've just figured that most anyone would already have read it and just be curious how it gets rated. Among other things, I do talk about the way things tie up in the end. And you'll notice that I have a hard time shutting up. Sue me.

Writing Quality: 4/10. There's not much about the writing quality in Mockingjay that sets it apart from The Hunger Games or Catching Fire. I'll just add a few points to those I made in the reviews of the earlier books. First, is that Collins still seems not to have mastered the fundamental writer's law of "show, don't tell." Now, any writer can tell you that it's not an absolute rule, but Collins gives us examples like this, which are certainly no exception:
I shrug to communicate that my hair length's a matter of complete indifference to me.
Part of the problem, I maintain, is Collin's awkward first-person perspective. But beyond that, what you can see in the above sentence is that Collins spends a lot of time explaining things that really should just be shown. Collins should have just left it at "I shrug." We can infer all the meaning we need from that action. In general, Collins would do better to spend time working on more subtle and evocative imagery, and spend less time with rather tedious internal monologue. It was Harper Lee who said "the book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one that makes you think." Katniss frequently does so much over-explaining that the reader's explorations are mostly shouldered out of the way. Here's an almost ludicrous moment, in which a beloved character is about to have his throat torn out:
As one [mutt] yanks back his head to take the death bite, something happens. It's as if I'm Finnick, watching images of my life pass by. The mast of a boat, a silver parachute, Mags laughing, a pink sky, Beetee's trident, Annie in her wedding dress, waves breaking over rocks. Then it's over.
What? It's almost like Collins imagined the way she'd want to have it edited in a movie, and so narrates a rather extended and cliche "life-flashing-before-her-eyes" montage scene over a gruesome moment that frankly can't last more than a split second. But this is no Midnight's Children, and so any ironic parallels to film editing are purely accidental, I'm sure. What I'm getting at is that Katniss' internal monologue here, and in other places, just seems weird and unecessary. Having said this, Collins does appear to have grown a bit more lyrical in this final novel of the trilogy, which has otherwise been noted for its utilitarian prose. Though the following narration may not be breaking new ground in terms of originality, I've gotta admit that it surprised me when I came across these efforts:
The pain over my heart returns, and from it I imagine tiny fissures spreading out into my body. Through my torso, down my arms and legs, over my face, leaving it crisscrossed with cracks. One good jolt of a bunker missile and I could shatter into strange, razor-sharp shards.
Since I haven't read anything by Collins other than the Hunger Games trilogy, I can't say whether this is new territory for her or not, but it feels like an effort at new prose language, which I'm supportive of. 

Depth of Concept: 5/10. This category was a pleasant surprise. I scored The Hunger Games a 3 in this category, and Catching Fire a 4. A 5 won't win any awards, but it is, frankly, better than a lot of other best-selling fantasy novels I've reviewed, including The Eye of the World, Eragon, Twilight, The Sword of Shannara, Wizard's First Rule, and even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It ties with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and The Graveyard Book.

Simply put, there's dark stuff that happens in this novel, and it's not tidily packaged and it doesn't hold many punches. In the first couple pages we're introduced to Katniss (inadvertantly) kicking around the skulls of her old District 12 neighbors, and so you know the tone of this concluding novel is quite a bit  harsher than the other two. While Mockingjay hardly approaches the elegance, power, and heartbreak of something like Elie Wiesel's Night, or Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, I wouldn't be surprised if Collins admitted to using them as source material. We've got torture and hunger and brutality stretched methodically across large swaths of society, and it affects combatants and civilians alike. Collins makes the sophisticated choice of having both sides of the rebellion commit terrible atrocities, and in the end even intimates that the triumphant rebels are little more than younger versions of the same flavor. It makes you think, and offers an opportunity to go back and critique the actions of the so-called good guys earlier in the novel (too bad that Katniss does most of that thinking for us, though). There's plenty to consider regarding necessary violence and what it does to both the victims and the perpetrators.

This category could have scored even higher if the follow-through on these concepts weren't so confused and jumbled. Along with the dark tone, we get a mash-up of a James Bond Q-like character who dishes up new weapons to Katniss and her crew with little irony or critique. For instance here's Katniss trying to cheer up her friend:
At the word trident, it's as if the old Finnick surfaces. "Really? What's it do?"
"I don't know. But if it's anything like my bow and arrows, you're going to love it," I say.
Aside from the fact that Collins very abruptly drops the curious revelation that each tribute is infatuated with his/her weapon from the arena, the seemingly problematic idea of weapon-love is never addressed. It's weird to drop rather cheesy weapon-love into a story that you'd think would make a point about that sort of thing.

Here's another laudable insight that ends up being a sort of lost opportunity:
A new sensation begins to germinate inside me. But it takes until I am standing on a table, waving my final goodbyes to the hoarse chanting of my name, to define it. Power. I have a kind of power I never knew I possessed.
The idea that power changes a person isn't a new concept, but it's still worth exploring, and it would be particularly interesting to see it coming from a young protagonist. But the power that Katniss notices "germinating" here never really gets mentioned again; certainly it never tempts her or corrupts her (or any of her influential friends). All The King's Men this is not.

Perhaps one of the most glaring omissions to me was the lack of exploration of a reality TV-watching culture. Collins goes out of her way to detail how ubiquitous the cameras are in both the arena and during the revolution. But there's hardly any nuanced consideration of media as a (necessary) evil, or of the inevitable inaccuracies inherent in even the most well-intentioned news broadcast. We get this:
"You're going to be as useful to the war effort as possible," Plutarch says. "And it's been decided that you are of most value on television."
And once it's decided that Katniss is going to be on TV, Collins mostly treats it as a fact and doesn't return to the social or ethical implications of the fact -- it's merely a tool to drive the plot along. Katniss rambles on about a lot of things, so you'd think there'd be some kind of thoughtful message to update what we get about different forms of media in Fahrenheit 451 . . . but no.

Rounded Characters: 5/10. I scored The Hunger Games a 3, and Catching Fire a 4 in this category. So, I definitely feel there's been improvement in character development. Mainly, I think, because Collins offers a wide spectrum of characters with a wide spectrum of attitudes about violence and vengeance and forgiveness. That's not to say that things aren't muddled here as well -- but it's a credit to Collins that she doesn't sanitize her "good" characters into socially acceptable teddy-bears, with some big exceptions (Peeta, I'm looking at you).

But here are the problems. We learn of Gale, early on:
The credit for the survivors' escape has landed squarely on Gale's shoulders, although he's loath to accept it.
So, he's a hero. He saves innocents. Eight hundred of them from District 12, in fact. And despite this, Collins sets him up as the opposite of the compassionate Peeta, which just doesn't seem to be as neat a polar opposite as Katniss makes it out to be. And even though it's made clear to us that Gale loves Katniss and that he "always has her back," at the end of the story he, for some reason. decides that a "fancy job" in District 2 is his priority? Where did that come from?

And the fact is, Katniss herself is not conflicted about vengeance. She's not waffling between Peeta's kindness and Gale's rage, really. She's perhaps the most bloodthirsty of them all. She hates everything and everybody:
Still, I hate them. But of course, I hate almost everybody now. Myself more than anyone.
The pencil moves across the page on its own. I open my eyes and see the wobbly letters. I KILL SNOW.
. . . because of what they're putting him through, I don't have any reservations anymore. About doing whatever it takes to destroy the Capitol. I'm finally free.
She opens her mouth to call for help . . . without hesitation, I shoot her through the heart.
Oh, yeah -- I forgot about that. I killed her, too. I'm taking out unarmed citizens now.
Katniss is one cold-hearted killer. But in the same moment that she kills a civilian without any remorse, and almost forgets about it later, she also tells us:
But I don't know what to tell him about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never leave you.
Collins is trying to have it both ways with a lot of her characters -- making them hit the extreme of callous or jaded or bereft of feeling (or in weird moments, joyful about their weapons), and then explaining how they are also tormented or incapacitated by their sins. Ok, so killing a person never leaves Katniss? Funny that she never gave another thought about that civilian she killed, or really wondered whether it would be wrong to try to "kill Snow." And at the end, in that Manchurian Candidate moment where she shoots Snow through the heart? Nothing. No reaction, no critique. Collins has Peeta claim that murdering innocent people "costs everything you are," but this concept just doesn't really get developed sufficiently, and it's unclear in the end just what kind of point Collins is trying to make.

Or, for instance, there's Beetie acknowledging that Katniss is "not one to kill for sport." Then why does she go out hunting every chance she gets? How many scenes are there in the book where she has a conversation while skinning an animal, having enjoyed herself for the first time in ages? It makes you think of a quote from the first novel, where Gale and Katniss discuss the idea that killing a person is pretty much the same as killing an animal. The point is, all of these concepts are sort of confused and mixed up. It's certainly not like Robert De Niro's character in that beautiful, elegant moment from The Deer Hunter where after returning from Vietnam he tries to go out hunting but can't bring himself to pull the trigger. That made sense, for his character arc and for the story.

So ultimately, there are interesting dark elements introduced to a variety of the characters in the novel, but they're not always done in ways that fit together very well. And Katniss, as always, is just an obnoxious protagonist. She spends too much time monologuing about things in her head, and jumping to sort of dumb and inappropriate conclusions. Like this one:
Prim was wrong. Peeta is irretrievable.
Nobody else thought Peeta was a goner. And it turned out that he started making a lot of progress, despite Katniss' confident defeatism. Basically, Katniss is an unjustified Debbie Downer. She abandons her friend and heads off to go die in combat. Annoying.

Well-Developed World: 4/10. For the first time, in this last novel, Collins bothers to offer some sense of the size of the populations we're dealing with:
More than ninety percent of the district's population is dead. The remaining eight hundred or so are refugees in District 13 . . .
It's not much. She doesn't for instance, offer any similar numbers for anything other than District 12, so we still can't make any good guesses about the world as a whole, or about any comparisons between the rebels and the Capitol. And that's irritating. But at least she threw us a very small bone.

We learn a little more about life in District 13, but none of it is very specific or unique -- you get the feeling it's mostly a mash-up of sci-fi, post-apocalyptic tropes. They live underground, there's lots of secret rooms, their food is rationed, and the buildings above them are rubble. Things liven up a little bit once Katniss and her friends start infiltrating The Capitol, as they work their way into the city, then underground, and then up into the actual habitable part of the city. But again, the only single moment that we have any sense of an average Capitol citizen is near the end of the novel when Katniss and her friends sneak into a fur underwear shop. Really? After three novels, this is all we are offered about life in the Big Bad Capitol? It lasts a couple pages, and then Katniss and friends are back in the streets, mowing down nondescript citizens just as indiscriminately as the Peacekeepers or the rebels. It's one big mush of "frightened citizen" cliche. I would have scored this category a 5 if we'd just gotten a little more insight into who or what The Capitol actually is. It's like Collins equated it with President Snow, and felt like that was all the differentiation that we needed.

Also, here's a funny little addition:
We may have been the smallest, poorest district in Panem, but we know how to dance.
Where in any of the three novels has Collins written anything about the beaten-down, depressed, try-not-to-get-noticed District 12 that intimated anything about celebration or dancing? It just doesn't fit with the world Collins has created up until this point. She actually says that someone breaks out a fiddle. Really? It's more of Collins deciding that something just seems clever in the moment, without making it consistent with the world.

Page Turner: 6/10. It wasn't too bad. Katniss' internal monologue gets tiresome, and each new sortie out of District 12 seems to add little suspense. The rising tension almost entirely occurs in the last fraction of the novel when everyone you like starts dying. Which is sad, but at least it makes you care about what might happen next. Overall, though, this novel felt a bit episodic up until the end. What's funny is that almost every episode ends with Katniss losing consciousness and waking up in the hospital. I mean, it must happen like eight or nine times. Except for the last fifty pages or so, though, it really doesn't keep the pace that made The Hunger Games really stand out. I never really had a hard time putting it down to do other activities, but I'm glad it didn't feel like slogging.

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10. I scored this one point higher than what I gave Catching Fire, and the same as The Hunger Games. There's a tendency in a lot of series for the latter novels to not live up to the originality of the originals. This one did, I think. That doesn't mean that it's better than most novels in this category . . . but a 5 is okay, and better than a lot of the dumb stuff you can find in the genre. Better than Twilight, for instance. The main reason I scored the novel as high as a 5 for keeping me thinking is for portions similar to this:
The snow's red and littered with undersized body parts. Many of the children die immediately, but others lie in agony on the ground. 
I mean, this is extreme stuff for a YA novel. Most of the lovable characters die near the end, including what really feels like a bizarre and unnecessary slaughter of innocent children right at the end. But it's clear that Collins put it there for a reason, and that reason is to shock the reader into considering the ramifications of a group of people that would do such a thing. Again, I'm not sure it was justified, or necessary, but you can't read that kind of material without racking your brain and asking, "Why the hell did she just do that?"

The Manchurian Candidate moment at the end, when Katniss shoots Coin instead of President Snow, is probably a good representation of how this novel works for me. The scenario raises questions and makes me think, yes. But it also makes me question all the things that Collins left out. For instance, why was Katniss' only option to take a life, rather than try to get on TV and convince people to let go of their vengeance? Collins' characters frequently make extreme decisions that lead me, the reader, to think hard, and to think hard about what Collins maybe could have done with more subtlety and consistency.
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Overall Recommendation: 5/10. Without the last fifty pages, I'd have given this concluding novel a 4. I can't say I love the way the novel ended, but it did make me think a bit more than the rest of the novel. And I think I liked the last page more than any other part of the trilogy. It got at a sort of tortured resignation that made for a poignant juxtaposition with mundane family life. If only the rest of the series could have been so evocative. Ultimately, this novel may have been trying to be too many things at once. An exploration of PTSD? A James Bond thriller? A kid's version of Night? A sci-fi Count of Monte Cristo? It's never quite clear. The first novel in the series is strong mainly in its quality as a page-turner; this conclusion isn't so strong there, but it somewhat makes up for that by forcing the reader to consider some really hard, if muddled, realities.

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. You might also get some mileage out of comparing the not-yet-classic but still undeniably powerful Night, by Elie Wiesel, and The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien. Mockingjay doesn't really match up strongly to any of these in terms of writing quality or thoughtfulness, but it at least ends on a somewhat strong note, one that might get people mulling over valuable concepts, even if not very artfully or consistently. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Mockingjay on Amazon.

8 comments:

  1. Interesting...I'd have to disagree with you on an improvement on the character development. Well maybe just on the development of Katniss. Maybe she brings down the others, but then again she's the protagonist. I don't know. I think she fails miserably at being a revolutionary leader.

    As for the ending, I felt like Collins was trying to tie up loose ends with a staple...it was rushed and stupid.

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    1. I agree about Katniss - she's a one-note protagonist who's a pain to follow. And I'll be the first to say that if you care about character development the Hunger Games is definitely not where I'd direct you.

      Having said that, I DO think there was improvement in this last novel over the others. Not enough to make the character development worthy of special note, just in comparison to the others in the trilogy. You'll notice that I spent most of my time in that category pointing out Collin's inconsistencies and oversimplifications, stuff that was really irritating me.

      And on rushing things...I'm with you on that. The Hunger Games worked, I think, because Collins wasn't trying to do anything larger than keep Katniss alive in an arena. Simple, small-scale stuff. In order to reach her conclusion in Mockingjay, she had to omit a lot of action and just have people talk about it. And when she did include the action, I'd agree that it felt a bit confused. So, I don't point to the final acts of the novel as exceptional; but merely as the main point where the pace picks up, whatever other faults that brings. And one way to get you to start caring is the (often exploitive) trick of killing off beloved characters.

      I will defend the last couple pages of the book as the best in the trilogy, though. Not amazing, by any stretch. Not on par with other books that I've scored a 6 or higher. But if you're gonna bother reading through the series, you may as well pay some special attention to the prologue.

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  2. It sounds like I'm not missing much in skipping the rest of the series. I posted my review of the first 150 pages of Catching Fire yesterday. I also have a comment about Katniss coming to dumb conclusions. It's just too bad Collins wasn't interested in creating an intelligent and mature heroine to help flesh out her series. Or, as you say, writing from a third-person perspective. I completely agree that the first-person just doesn't work for these books.

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    1. Yeah, even in the YA world, there's much more subtle, interesting stuff. But since you've already gotten as far as you have, it might not hurt to pick up Mockingjay and just glance through the last four or five pages, I think. I mean, after bothering to get through that much, you may as well end the experience on a thinking note.

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  3. I liked the series a lot, as you know, although I completely agree with just about every flaw you point out. However, what I LOVED about it was the end. Instead of realizing her potential and doing something incredible and rallying everyone together and saving the universe, she goes home and suffers PTSD for the rest of her totally unremarkable life. It surprised and pleased me that a YA novel would do that.

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    1. I sort of liked that aspect as well. I could imagine crafting the scene differently, more elegantly even, but I appreciate what Collins was trying to do, even if I still see flaws in what was actually on the page. In a way, I think the conclusion brought up complicating ideas that I wish I could have seen more realized in other portions of the series as well.

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  4. Having read the series I have 1 impression leaving MockingJay and that is that I have read this story line before. Particularly the City assault by Katnis's team, the assault at the barricades where the sister dies and the final ending. As I read this I felt that I had read it before in a short story or something. Has Suzanne publish parts in short stories before the books?

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    1. Scottie-dog, I don't really know. My only experience withe Collins is reading these three books. In terms of whether you'd find parallels with stuff written by other authors, I'd bet you could find a lot. Collin's work is definitely a pastiche of a lot of narratives from other places.

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