by Suzanne Collins
Published by Scholastic, 2010
The latest “next big thing” in young adult fiction, following Harry Potter and Twilight, has been Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, a solid and enjoyable adventure story.
It is set in a post-apocalyptic America, ruled by an advanced city located in the Rocky Mountains, which has divided the rest of the country into twelve regions and dominates them through the distribution of food stuffs and the Hunger Games. One boy and one girl from each region is drawn by lot and flown to a designated location where they are required to fight to the death. There can only be one survivor. The Games are nationally televised and viewing is compulsory.
This sounds a lot like Koshun Takami’s Battle Royale, in which a repressive regime rounds up a classroom of kids each year and subjects them to a nationally televised fight to the death, but Collins’ inspiration is the story of the Minotaur. Many have heard of the maze and the monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man, but not many know that its story included a debt by the city of Athens. Athens had to pay Minos a tribute of seven boys and seven girls, drawn by lot. Upon their arrival the children were led to the maze and fed to the monster. This happened every year, or every nine years (depending on which version of the story you’re reading) until Theseus volunteered to kill the beast. I’ve only read the first book and don’t know how much further Collins has gone in integrating her source material into the trilogy, but she has introduced the concept of human-animal mutations and our hero is a volunteer.
That hero, Katniss Everdeen, is the weakest part of the story. Katniss is a poor girl from the poorest region and she spends a great deal of time telling us of her daily hardships. Following her father’s death the family was pushed to the brink of starvation, but apart from that one, admittedly traumatic, event her family has actually done quite well for itself. She is a successful hunter (well, poacher), her sister has a goat, that provides milk and cheese, and her mother has an apothecary business. She’s gifted, well liked, and beautiful, but you’d never know that to listen to her. One character describes her as “sullen”--resentful, sulking--and she certainly is that. She’s a teen, of course, but still.
Another problem is her unwillingness to kill. When she does it is only under the greatest duress. Outside the context of a battle to the death, this would be admirable, but she is in a battle to the death. This is pretty standard in comic book adventures. The protagonist isn’t simply the main character, he’s the hero. To save her heroine from getting her hands unnecessarily bloodied Collins has to put clever plotting ahead of character development, but that’s pretty standard in genre writing and I doubt many who pick up this book are going to mind.