Maybe I should start reading more young-adult fantasy novels, because I have to admit that I probably enjoyed The Hunger Games more than any other book I've read in the last few months.
The premise is straight-forward and compelling, if not all that original: In a dystopic future America, teenagers from outlying districts must compete with each other in a battle to the death to pay tribute for their districts' previous rebellion against the capital. When her younger sister is picked to compete, a 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place. At The Hunger Games she must struggle to overcome stronger opponents as well as a young girl who reminds her of her sister and a boy from her own district with whom she may be falling in love.
So, yeah, it's The Running Man meets The Breakfast Club.
Simple as it may be, however, the premise allows for a lot of interesting complications. How will Katniss deal with having to kill children, who like her are merely pawns in a game played by the opulent and cruel denizens of the capital? What will she do when she has to face-off against Rue, the young girl who reminds her of her sister? How will she reconcile the fake romance she's developing with Peeta, a baker's child from her own district, with her true feelings and her need to kill (or be killed by) him.
Collins fails to realize the full potential of some of these complications, giving Katniss what some readers might see as a few easy outs--especially with Rue. But I can forgive her mainly because of how deftly she handles the complex relationship between Katniss and Peeta. I hate to bring up this other wildly popular YA-fantasy title, but what Collins does with this budding romance is so much more nuanced and so much less insulting to women than anything in the Twilight series that I can't wait for my daughters to read this book. Hopefully, they'll look at me one day and say, "Katniss is so much cooler than Bella," but I digress.
Though the fast-paced novel mostly eschews literary flourishes, the story-telling is deft and confident throughout, and their are some truly inspired descriptions, such as when Katniss's sister's face is described as "as fresh as a raindrop" and her cat's eyes are described as "the color of rotting squash."
To revisit the issue of Katniss being a refreshingly strong female lead, I have to admit that this also probably played a big role in my enjoyment of The Hunger Games. As the father of two daughters, I love seeing that there's a heroine out there who takes responsibility for her family, hunts with a skill and knowledge rivaling that of any male characters, and kicks ass with a bow and arrow. I hope the movie coming out next year is a hit, because I'd love to see Katniss Everdeen become a true pop-culture icon for my daughters.
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