Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, 2009

I look at Cinna, raising my eyebrows for an explanation. He just gives his head a slight shake, as perplexed as I am. Why are they delaying this?

Suddenly the door behind him bursts open and three Peacekeepers spring into the room. Two pin Cinna's arms behind him and cuff him while the third hits him in the temple with such force he's knocked to his knees. But they keep hitting him with metal-studded gloves, opening gashes on his face and body. I'm screaming my head off, banging on the unyielding glass, trying to reach him. The Peacekeepers ignore me completely as they drag Cinna's limp body from the room. All that's left are the smears of blood on the floor.

Sickened and terrified, I feel the plate begin to rise. I'm still leaning against the glass when the breeze catches my hair and I force myself to straighten up. Just in time, too, because the glass is retreating and I'm standing free in the arena. Something seems to be wrong with my vision. The ground is too bright and shiny and keeps undulating. I squint down at my feet and see that my metal plate is surrounded by blue waves that lap up over my boots. Slowly I raise my eyes and take in the water spreading out in every direction.

I can only form one clear thought:

This is no place for a girl on fire.---- (pages 262-263)

Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, tributes from the impoverished District 12, have won the Hunger Games. As the first joint winners of the games, Katniss and Peeta find themselves in a delicate political situation: the trick that won them the Games has made Katniss into a symbol of defiance against the government. As districts begin to rebel against the all-powerful Capitol, Katniss is forced to walk a tightrope between encouraging the rebels and keeping the Capitol appeased and her friends and family safe.

Things only get worse when the twist is revealed for the next year's Hunger Games: the tributes will be chosen from the former victors, all of whom are now countrywide celebrities. Katniss and Peeta will be forced to return to the arena, to compete against a gang of hardened older killers. And this time, only one of them can survive the Games.

Like The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is a zippy and highly entertaining novel, written with a lot of originality and verve. Even though Fire had some structural problems that Games didn't, I actually enjoyed it more. Since the characters and world have already been established, Collins is free to deepen the plot and character development, while still providing hair-raising adventure and some admirably imaginative devices. I'm not doing handstands over the central love triangle, which occurs more in Katniss's mind than in reality, but it's still done pretty well.

The only real problem with the book is that it has a slow beginning, a repetitive middle and a terrific third act. We know from the beginning that Katniss and Peeta will end up in the arena again, since it's the book's main plot and it's the only direction the story can go in. But instead of revealing this early, Collins draws out the revelation, focusing on happenings inside District 12, where the Capitol is tightening its control. The dystopian elements are not the real draw of the series; Collins does a fine job of making the Capitol a believably evil force of facism, but she doesn't do much that's new with the concept. Having Katniss internally recap the events of the first book for about thirty pages starts things off rather sluggishly, and it doesn't help that the love triangle proves to be more conceptual than actual. Katniss goes over the Peeta/Gale debate in her head over and over, despite the fact that there isn't enough interaction between either couple to warrant all the analysis (that said, the idea that Katniss and Peeta have to pretend to be lovers for the camera is delightfully wicked).

Once the twist in the Games is revealed, we have to go through all of the Games-related routines that were established in the previous book--like all reality shows, the Hunger Games has a set formula that is repeated each year. This is fine and is probably necessary for the story, but it sometimes feel like a warmed-over rehash of what happened in Games. It feels as though the story doesn't really begin until the Games do, some 260 pages in.

Like its predecessor, the last act is far and away the best part of Fire. The concept of the deadly competition is Collins's masterstroke and she does a great job of coming up with inventive (and sometimes grisly) traps and obstacles. This time around, the other tributes are also much better developed than Katniss's opponents in Games, something that leads to a much more dynamic conflict, since Katniss actually knows some of the people she's fighting. The whole section reads like one long action movie--which it soon will be, since the adaptation of the first book is coming out next year. Collins has provided quite a gift for the filmmakers with Fire; her talent for cinematic description is one of her most useful writing tools.

I still have problems with young-adult-iness of her writing. Having bare-bones descriptions is not bad in and of itself, but when writing about a sci-fi world, it seems odd not to describe it more effectively. For instance, the whole Captiol is described in only a few lines, as is the arena. Collins's spare style may be perfect for action, but it hurts her a bit when it comes to world-building. On the other hand, we get pages of Katniss's emotional descriptions, which tend to be pretty generic star-crossed lover material. A lot of teen literature has this kind of internal narration, as though younger readers can't interpret a character's motives based on her actions and dialogue. Collins does tend to over-explain and reiterate certain concepts over and over; she feels the need to remind everyone that Haymitch is an alcoholic every few pages by having him throw up or pass out. The present-tense narration also turns into a distraction after a while. A more conventional past-tense might have served the story better.

There's definitely stronger character work in Fire than in Games. Katniss is still a pretty engaging protagonist, even if she goes back and forth between being a total badass and an emotional wreck. Gale gets a little more depth, as we see the depth of his hatred for the Capitol and his desire to escape his miserable life in District 12. Peeta remains the most likable character, and Collins gives him some much-needed dimension here. A couple of the new characters show promise as well. President Snow is an appropriately unnerving baddie and dangerous heartthrob Finnick Odair is an interesting and somewhat multi-layered addition to the cast. Even though Collins is not particularly good at writing compelling supporting characters, her heroes are strong enough to keep the plot moving along and just complex enough to keep the book from feeling cartoonish.

I spent most of Catching Fire enjoying myself without getting too involved or being much shocked by the plot twists, so when Collins suddenly hit the gas and gave us one hell of a cliffhanger ending, I was surprised by how skillfully she had woven it. It's an ending that basically upends everything that has been constant about her universe and sets up an all-bets-are-off final chapter, 2010's Mockingjay. I still wish that Collins had written the trilogy with an adult audience in mind, allowing her to have a more complex plot and richer prose, but Catching Fire is still a pretty satisfying and creative sci-fi thriller, and I'm genuinely excited to see how it all turns out in Mockingjay.

NEXT UP: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

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