Review: The Hunger Games: an exemplar on writing tension

The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have some aspirations to write for young adults, so this seemed like a good book to pick up. I’m not going to do a plot summary–you’ve probably heard that much already, and I’m not going to worry about giving spoilers, ’cause I arrived pretty late to the game.

This book is phenomenally well written. I was especially impressed with how Collins creates and escalates tension. I’ll probably read it again more closely to study some of her techniques. She really keeps the reader turning pages, wanting to know what will happen next and eager to see where the new twist will lead.

So now you’re wondering, why not 5 stars? There’s a few reasons for that. One is that, in spite of her writing making me believe in every scene, I didn’t really buy the underlying concept behind the Hunger Games. The incredibly wealthy Capitol maintains control over the incredibly poor outliers by stealing their children and making them kill each other. Still doesn’t quite work for me. It feels like a rather obvious invention based on the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer–as if we moved the developing nations that America currently exploits onto the same continent. The gap between the Capitol and District 12 in the book is so extreme that I had trouble believing it would last–or that it would develop in this way to begin with. It felt like a set-up designed to make a political point rather than a reasonable extrapolation of the future.

Second, while I believed in the protagonist, Katniss, and most of her actions, I was never wholly sympathetic with her. I could see that she was hitting all the right buttons: she’s not physically imposing, but beautiful when she’s cleaned up; she’s modest (to a fault); she doesn’t know her effect on others; she is self-sacrificing; she’s a survivor. But she seemed a bit blank for all of that–a collection of the right buttons rather than a real person. I felt this most particularly toward the end of the Games, when she seems to be willfully ignoring things that seemed obvious by then. Peeta’s in love with me? Really?? I might have feelings for Gale? Really??

Which is a good lead in to my second to last (and most important) criticism. The ending fell flat. I was right there with them in the arena, then their victory was stolen by the Evil Capitol-ists. And even that might be another of those nifty twists, except it played into Katniss’s blindness about Peeta’s relationship with her. And then the book had a relationship-story ending. No triumph, no reunion, no opportunity to enjoy the victory. I’m not one who needs a book to have a happy ending, or to have the big ceremony where the Wookie gets a medal, but some, small symbolic moment where the protagonist, and the reader, can feel the significance of the success: yes.

It’s said the opening of a book sells that book, while the ending sells the next book. And this ending didn’t sell me. It wasn’t a relationship book. While Peeta’s love for Katniss is important to *him* it isn’t to her, and ending on that note felt wrong for the character and for the story that was set up until then. It made me wonder if those last few scenes were an afterthought tacked on to lead-in to a sequel.

So my last criticism has to do with Peeta himself. I love the fact that he uses his camouflage skill to good effect in the arena (would have liked to see this more, even), but his talent for throwing heavy things around is never applied. The author sets it up, along with the cake-decorating, then his upper body strength is never important again–even though his wounded leg gives Collins an excuse to make him rely more on his other strengths. A missed opportunity.

A good read overall, very exciting, if, ultimately a bit disappointing.

View all my reviews

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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