The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
It’s true; I once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. (Which means that it took me 3-4 days to read it, rather than a couple of weeks.) Matthew David Surridge had a post over at Black Gate about readability and ambiguity on a prose level and I’ll assume he hasn’t read The Hunger Games because I think it’s a prime example of what he’s talking about. As with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, Collins’ prose is clean and tight. Details are reiterated often enough (maybe too often) that a reader doesn’t have to think too much about what’s going on at a sentence level. The first person present POV (something I generally dislike) keeps the action immediate. Once I started reading the POV became less noticeable, for the most part. Unfortunately, there are plenty of occasions of Katniss, our main character, thinking back on events. Just about every time she’d come back to the present, I was jarred out of the narrative by the tense change. I suppose, realistically, you can’t have a survival story with a first person narrator and have her speak in the past tense without giving away whether she survives or not. But Suzanne Collins isn’t George R.R. Martin; I didn’t doubt what the outcome of the book would be.
My main criticism has less to do with the book itself and more to do with its genre. I’m not a fan of dystopias. Or of utopias, for that matter. Both rely heavily on a certain contrivances of setting that I find disappointing. Generally, I’ll turn a blind eye when the setting is fantasy (especially fables and fairy tales) and far-future science fiction (I don’t spend much though on the economic circumstances of Star Trek), but there’s an air to ~topian fiction that seems to imply that this is a possible world, when it really isn’t. In this case, I don’t buy that a very technologically advanced society is seemingly subsisting off the meager output of its very repressed citizenry. Or why the citizenry should be so repressed if the government in charge actually needs those resources. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I just don’t buy that a government can get away with such mustache-twirling villainy. It’s not a sustainable thing. Ultimately, if I don’t buy the world (and the behaviors of those in power in a world), it’s hard for me to buy the actions of any character. What most speculative fiction ends up relying on are the personal stories between characters. The question is, can I believe these characters?
I’d like to believe Katniss. She’s is strong tool user. She’s not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, supernaturally imbued with literal ass-kicking power. She knows that she’s probably screwed if it comes down to physical confrontations with male characters. She’s holding a grudge against her mother because, well, she’s young and doesn’t understand some things. I do wonder though if there are any girls that are so truly, utterly clueless about the attention they’re getting?
As I mentioned above, there are good reasons for reiterating details within prose and within a plot, but too much repetition makes me want to throw things. “Mom and Prim are are awesome at folk remedies.” Got it. “I’d rather be wearing pants and soft leather boots.” Same here. “Gale’s cool, but he’s-not-my-boyfriend.” Sure. The more you say it the more I’ll believe it.
I did find the Katniss/Peeta conundrum somewhat interesting. If I want to take an allegorical approach, how often do girls especially play at being interested in a boy for reasons that are entirely not their own?
Lastly, there’s liberal use of deus ex machina, but in a sort of official way. Need something to drive the plot to its conclusion? No problem, the Gamemakers have it covered. Part game master, part TV executive, the Gamemakers keep everything moving right along. The altered animals in the story seem to come along at the most opportune moments.
I liked the book better than I thought I would, but I did suspect that I would be disappointed with the setting. I didn’t enjoy it enough to read the rest of the trilogy.