Welcome to Professor Beej’s Hunger Games trilogy book review! I’ll get the hyperbole out of the way first: if all YA lit were as well-written as The Hunger Games, I might never read adult fiction again.
Okay, now that that is out of my system, I’ll explain what I mean. The Hunger Games trilogy is the most well-written YA series I’ve read in a while. In fact, if it weren’t for the protagonist being 16 years old, I would be hard-pressed to classify this as Young Adult. Suzanne Collins does an outstanding job at worldbuilding–the characters are well-rounded and believable (most of them, at least), the narrative is compelling, and the setting is recognizable while remaining exotic.
Looking at the books individually is to do the whole Hunger Games trilogy a disservice, though. Probably the best thing about the series is its structure in that the first novel can standalone, but doesn’t. The trilogy reads almost like a single novel, which is part of why it appeals so much to me. I’m a sucker for serial narratives.
With that in mind, I have written each book a sort of mini-review below instead of writing three separate reviews.
The Hunger Games Trilogy, Book 1: The Hunger Games
Spread across three novels, The Hunger Games is told from the first-person (present-tense, even!) perspective of Katniss Everdeen, a snarky tomboy living District 12, a part of Appalachia in the former United States (now a country called Panem). She poaches from the government, she trades on the black market, and she provides for her family.
Typical stuff for a sixteen year old, right?
In all honesty, The Hunger Games starts off like almost any other post-apocalyptic novel. The world we (the readers) know is gone. In its place is a dystopian society where North America is split into 12 districts, and of course our main character is from the poorest, most remote section.
This trope aside, the series is set apart by Katniss’ voice. In much the same way that Jim Butcher separates Harry Dresden from typical detective noir PI’s, Collins keeps Katniss from sounding like some other vapid YA narrators.
The premise of the novel (series?) itself also sets it apart, though it’s not 100% original. Every year, the Capitol forces each of the 12 districts to offer two children as tribute as punishment for holding a rebellion a century before. The twenty-four tributes are then put into an arena where they fight to the death. Winning not only means they stay alive, but they also secure monthly food drops for their district, while the other 11 maintain their meager existences. Hence, the title.
While the premise is shared with such cult favorites as Battle Royale, The Hunger Games just executes the concept well. For YA, the book is surprisingly violent. Readers are treated to Katniss’ whole trip through the arena, seeing teenagers and children mutilated along the way. If you’re squeamish or hate violence against children, you might want to shy away. We are treated to arrows through eye sockets, explosions, beatings, eviscerations, and even hallucinatory insect venom. Collins knows how to give the readers what they want, if what they want are 20+ dead children.
By the time the first book ends, readers have a good grasp on what the series has to offer. It’s fast paced and easy to read, and Suzanne Collins really knows how to get the most out of her created world. Panem has a rich history that readers are teased with, but she only lets us know what is necessary to the story.
The Hunger Games may be the best book in the series, but only for one reason: it is the most unique among them. It’s concept (and the execution of it) is something rare in YA literature, and that counts for a lot. While the other two novels in the series continue the story and expand the narrative, the first entry in the series is unique after being used to so many authors churning out page after page of whatever the flavor of the month is, (but to be honest, this may be the next flavor). Still, I can’t help but like it best.
Book 2: Catching Fire
Book 2, Catching Fire, has a couple of things going for it. The most prominent of which is the first book. Don’t get me wrong, Catching Fire is a splendid read and continues the story well enough, but it suffers from the main problem that many second-novels suffer from: sequelitis.
Yes, that’s a technical term that can be defined in the Beej’s Big Book of Made-Up Literary Terms:
Sequelitis refers to any novel, particularly a second novel, in a series that continues the story in an interesting manner, but brings nothing new to the series on its own. A novel suffering from sequelitis may possess a lack of new characters, rehashed plots, and occasional flashbacks to the first–and stronger–book in the series. Sequelitis is not a series-threatening affliction, and symptoms will often go away as the series continues into its third installment.
Catching Fire suffers from most of these problems (who’da thunk it?). The thing is, the book’s good. The characters are still compelling, the narrative is strong, and we even get new insight into Panem and the rest of Collins’ post-apocalyptic wonderland. The real problem is that, like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the entire book feels like I had already experienced it.
The main reason that The Hunger Games was so intriguing is that the situation was original (enough) and Collins wrote well enough to make a bunch of teenagers gutting each other not seem as creepy as it may sound. It was something new for YA. But Catching Fire does the main thing that I hate a sequel to do: rehash the plot of book 1.
Sure it’s a safe bet because it guarantees (pretty much) that readers who enjoyed the first book will enjoy the second. They’ll get exactly what they came for.
But that’s the problem. By making there be a second Hunger Games in book 2, Collins eliminates any freshness the idea still had. I like the traps, and I have to admit that the arena from book 2 was a lot more interesting than the first one. But I couldn’t care as much because a good third of the novel felt like I was walking through hallways I had just been down.
More than that, though, I was disappointed that Collins piqued my interest with a tour around Panem that the first novel couldn’t have accommodated. I felt teased by learned things about the world, the people, and the government. I was tantalized by whispers of rebellion, and I saw an emotional sequence of events unfolding that had me wondering which character I should root for.
But then came the Quarter Quell and the second Hunger Games of the series, and I got bored because, like I said, I had just finished a book where that was the main plot, and I was hoping for Catching Fire to be more than that.
So when the book ended, I smiled (because I did enjoy the novel), closed it, and hoped that when I got into book 3 that the author would expand the narrative instead of being bogged down in still-more-of-the-same.
Book 3: Mockingjay
In a lot of ways, Mockingjay fills the hole in the series that the just-okay Catching Fire created. The best thing about it: it fleshes out the world and characters, getting political and keeping just the right amount of familiar convention. The worst thing about it, then? The title. Mockingjay? Really? I appreciate how thematic it is, but this one’s kind of a stinker.
Outside of that, the series’ conclusion is about what I would have expected. There is the requisite amount of violence and skarky narration, and I felt emotionally connected throughout the whole story.
Mockingjay surpasses the previous two novels, however, at expanding the series in terms of location. The first two books are limited in where they are set. We see lots of District 12, the Capitol, and maybe a few glances of different districts as the characters travel by train. However, Mockingjay moves the narrative into before-unseen areas, which gives the whole book a feeling of newness, rather than Catching Fire‘s more-of-the-same. My favorite scene change is when the characters go to the hospital in District 8 to shoot a propaganda video; everything about that section just clicked with me and felt different and fresh.
An interesting note about the third book, though, is that it felt short. Very short. Maybe I expect too much out of endings, maybe I look for too much explanation and closure. But Mockingjay‘s ending seemed rushed. The novel itself was roughly the same length as the previous two, but with such a large mythology to wrap in a neat, closure-filled package, the ending came too soon. And as with the case with many epilogues (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter!), the tone of Mockingjay‘s just felt…off.
The resolution and actual events were fine. I liked what happened, even though they were predictable through the last 50-100 pages. They never truly granted closure, though. The events just happen, and readers move from one plot point to the next in an almost surreal blur. I would have preferred either a longer novel, or maybe less plot-point explanation and more personal resolution.
But then, maybe it’s just me.
In a lot of ways, Mockingjay feels like the end of LOST. It wasn’t exactly what I expected going in, nor is it precisely what I wanted after investing so much time with the series, but upon further reflection, it was definitely appropriate.
The series could definitely have gone on past a trilogy, and I’d like to see maybe an Ender’s Shadow-style spin-off series from another character’s perspective. Prim would have a great story to tell, or Gale. But as for the main narrative with Katniss Everdeen, I’m glad it’s over. It was fun (as fun as a trilogy based around political revolution and annual teenage murder can be), and I’m glad I read it.
But that story’s been told. Suzanne Collins has a wonderfully crafted world (with a rich history, an interesting present, and a future of some sort) in The Hunger Games trilogy, and readers only ever get to see the tiniest part of it. That much work, that much effort, that much creativity shouldn’t be put to rest after just three books.
Overall Impressions of the Hunger Games trilogy?
While they are the first books since John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to have kept me up past my bedtime, the Hunger Games trilogy is definitely not a series for everyone. The sparkly vampire crowd may or may not like it. Those looking for vulgarity and excessive gore might not, either. Heck, even people who love post-apocalyptic SF may find fault with it because as dark as it is, it never made me want to just go curl up and cry like The Road did.
It’s well written, though, and maybe more importantly, it’s fun. The characters are compelling, and the concept is something that mainstream YA fiction has needed for a long time (i.e. a series not based around wizards or magic or beasts or fantastical creatures of any sort).
And they don’t take long to read. While each book clocks in close to the 400-page mark, the hardcovers (yes, I read the hardcovers instead of ebooks!) have large, easy-to-read type that is very quick to plow through. I used these books as a kind of palate cleanser from the “literature” and essays I was reading for class and prepping lessons on, and it was always pleasant to pick up one of The Hunger Games and read.
Not because it was easy, not because it was fast, but because it was good, and even as a pushing-30 English teacher well outside of the target demographic, it made me think. Which is why I wanted to do a Hunger Games trilogy book review in the first place.
I’d trade all the sparkly vampires in the literary world for just a handful more YA series that do that.