Monday, January 30, 2012

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, 2010

The summer's been scorching hot and dry as a bone. There's been next to no rain to disturb the piles of ash left by the attack. They shift here and there, in reaction to my footsteps. No breeze to scatter them. I keep my eyes on what I remember as the road, because when I first landed in the Meadow, I wasn't careful and I walked right into a rock. Only it wasn't a rock--it was someone's skull. It rolled over and over and landed faceup, and for a long time I couldn't stop looking at the teeth, wondering whose they were, thinking of how mine would probably look the same way under similar circumstances.

I stick to the road out of habit, but it's a bad choice, because it's full of the remains of those who tried to flee. Some were incinerated entirely. But others, probably overcome with smoke, escaped the worst of the flames and now lie reeking in various states of decomposition, carrion for scavengers, blanketed by flies.
I killed you, I think as I pass a pile. And you. And you.

Because I did. It was my arrow, aimed at the chink in the force field surrounding the arena, that brought this firestorm of retribution. That sent the whole country of Panem into chaos.

In my head I hear President Snow's words, spoken the morning I was to begin the Victory Tour.
"Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem." It turns out he wasn't exaggerating or simply trying to scare me. He was, perhaps, genuinely attempting to enlist my help. But I had already set something in motion that I had no ability to control.---- (pages 5-6)


Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the first two books of the Hunger Games trilogy. They were both interesting, action-packed and attention-grabbing, with reasonably compelling characters and smart writing. They were not, however, books that really moved me much or engaged me beyond the simple pleasure of good storytelling. They were definitely "good reads." I expected Mockingjay to be an entertaining end to a fun series. The good guys would win, Katniss and Peeta would ride off into the sunset, and the Capitol's evil would be eradicated. Simple and satisfying. The trilogy would go down as a really well-done series of YA thriller-romances that will undoubtedly make terrific popcorn movies.

I wasn't expecting this.

Mockingjay is not the peppy, candy-coated grand finale I was imagining. It's astoundingly dark and nasty and philosophical and even subtle in spots. Collins takes the series and characters to places I would have assumed were way too adult, and she wreaks merry havoc with her cast of beloved characters, torturing them with such brutality that she actually reminded me of Joss Whedon. This is easily--easily--the best book in the trilogy, topping the first two in nearly every way. Even Collins' writing is progressing from the young-adult-y tone that I have such little patience for. Naturally, I have quibbles, but even with its flaws, this was a book that actually engaged me, riveted me, moved me. I can't really say the same for 1 and 2.

After the apocalyptic end of the Quarter Quell, Katniss has been rescued by the District 13 rebels, while Peeta is still in the hands of the Capitol, enduring hideous torture. The rebels have begun a full-scale revolt that has all of the Districts battling against the Capitol in a no-holds-barred war. Katniss's unique position as a beloved public figure gives them an ace in the hole: she can act as the Mockingjay, a figure of revolution and defiance, and stir up the Districts against President Snow. Much to Katniss's chagrin, she is becoming the pawn of a new government that seeks to use her for their own benefit. All Katniss wants is to free Peeta, kill President Snow and bring down the Capitol. But what (and who) will victory cost here?

Mockingjay, unlike the first two books, doesn't revolve around a Hunger Games, which frees up its narrative considerably. The Hunger Games concept is a solid one, but it's also limiting, and the fact that Collins doesn't spend the last book chronicling a Games gives her the leeway to tell a more complex, involved story. The specter of the Games still looms over the novel, though. One of Collins' masterstrokes is taking the reality-television-as-propaganda angle and applying it to the war with the Capitol. Even when visiting war zones and fighting battles, Katniss is trailed by cameras, her every move recorded in the hopes that she will provide inspiring material. It's a cool way to keep the themes of voyeurism and entertainment politics alive without rehashing the Games. Another way that the Games' influence is felt is in the final battle in the streets of the Capitol, which have been extensively boobytrapped in a way very similar to the arena. Collins really does a nice job of essentially jettisoning the core conceit of the first two books and making the final act its own animal.

Not to overstate it, but it seems to me that Collins's writing has matured significantly between Fire and Mockingjay. Maybe it has more to do with the book's complex plot and themes, but it seems as though some of the more YA-y elements are missing. The dialogue is a little snappier, the descriptions a tad richer. The characterizations are definitely deeper. That's not to say that there aren't a few characters who get shortchanged in that department (Boggs and President Coin are two that jump to mind), and I could have done with a little more action and a more dynamic climax. But overall? A big improvement, writing-wise, on the first two books, which were good to begin with, despite a nitpick or two on my end.

For instance, I may have complained that Collins flinched away from the violence and brutality in Games and Fire, but that couldn't be farther from the case in Mockingjay. Here, barely a page goes by without something shocking or gruesome happening. Collins seems to be trying to give Stephen King a run for his money in finding creative ways to kill people. The action is relentless and gory; no one, even children, are safe. As a result of this, the book is easily twice as suspenseful as either of its predecessors--even though Games and Fire were intense, I never really feared much for the main characters, who seemed sure to survive every catastrophe. In Mockingjay, Collins is absolutely merciless. There are two major deaths in particular that are real jaw-droppers (the fact that one of the victims was my favorite supporting character didn't help).

The levels of darkness that Collins is willing to go to is nothing less than astounding, especially where the characters are concerned. Katniss spends much of the book teetering on the brink of insanity due to all she's experienced, and her moral code becomes more flexible as the war goes on (I mean, she actually kills innocent people). Gale has gone from being a boy filled with rage to a somewhat frightening man who's willing to destroy the Capitol no matter what--even if he has to kill innocent people. Perhaps the most surprising change is wrought in Peeta, who has been tortured with tracker jacker venom by the Capitol, giving him a bitter new personality and a hatred of Katniss. Frankly, the characters have never been my favorite thing about the HG series until Mockingjay, where everyone seemed to suddenly gain dimension. The Dark Peeta angle in particular gets huge points from me for making the Katniss/Peeta romance feel truly relevant and surprisingly emotional. There are some truly hurtful and affecting scenes between the pair, and Collins does a good job of setting the readers off balance by detonating the series' core relationship. It's a mature and thoughtful device, something I wouldn't have guessed she was capable of. The ultimate ending, too, is amazingly bleak and intentionally anticlimactic; I was reminded of the end of Jonathan Stroud's Ptolemy's Gate, one of the darkest, most brilliant conclusions to a young-adult series I've ever read.

Now, I don't necessarily agree with Collins's strident anti-war message, nor do I think that she argues the philosophical points with impeccable logic (her claim that District 13 and the Capitol are morally equivalent is kind of weak). But you know what? She makes the readers feel her passion and belief in a way that she doesn't for most of the series. Ending the series with pain and suffering instead of triumph feels like a shock, and yet, it also makes total sense considering all that has happened over the course of the novel, and the series. It's a fitting end, and one that still sneaks up on you and delivers a gut-punch.

NEXT UP: My review of P.G. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters.

ALSO: I am happy to announce that I have begun As I Lay Reading, a companion to this blog. Unlike this blog (where I will continue to write capsule reviews of the books I read), AILR will feature constant commentary and complex, heady, thought-provoking analysis as I read, as well as any stupid thing I think to post. It is the Damon to this blog's Stefan--funnier, sexier and less straight-laced (sorry, I've got Vampire Diaries on the brain). Please head over there and check it out!

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