Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review - Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins


Short review: After Katniss' act of rebellion in The Hunger Games, the Districts are rising up, so it is back to the arena for her, Peeta, and twenty-two other former winners of the games.

Haiku
Now they are victors
But the Capitol's ire
Is focused on them

Full review: Catching Fire is the sequel to The Hunger Games, coming between the first book and Mockingjay, making it the middle book in the trilogy. Normally, the middle book in a three book series is the weakest because it is difficult to craft a satisfying story that doesn't really have a beginning or an ending, allowing for it to be connected to the series at the front and back ends. Catching Fire, however, is the best book in the series, expanding away from the close focus on Katniss to show the reader more of the world of Panem and at the same time pulling in close to show what the world is like from the perspective of a Hunger Games victor. And the story also shows in quite brutal and stark terms how the regime of President Snow reacts to even the smallest hint of defiance.

The viewpoint character of the book is once again Katniss, and as the story begins, she and Peeta are preparing to go on their victory tour. This tour, which all victors make, will take them through all of the Districts, ending with their own, ostensibly to allow each District to see the heroic winners of the Games. The reality, however, is that this is yet another method by which the Capitol maintains control. If all the Capitol wanted to do was to punish the Districts for their long ago rebellion, then it could demand tributes and then simply execute them. But that would not accomplish the Capitol's full purpose: by having the tributes kill each other, they create animosity between the Districts. By parading the victor through the Districts of the losing competitors, the Capitol intensifies this division, forcing each district to make obeisances to the child who killed their children. Not only does the Capitol exact a terrible toll from the Districts, it uses the bodies of the teenagers it demands to maintain its own power by keeping the Districts divided against one another.

This explains why, when Katniss is about to leave for her tour after she had figuratively faced down the Gamesmakers and forced them to allow her and Peeta to live even though the rules required otherwise, President Snow considers her important enough to warrant a personal visit and a threat against her life and the lives of those she loves. It turns out that Katniss' act of personal rebellion is seen by the entrenched powers as having the potential to unite the Districts against the Capitol by giving them a focal point to rally around. And the solution, as outlined by President Snow, is for Katniss to convince everyone that her actions were driven by a love for Peeta, and not by an animosity towards the Capitol. But almost from the start Katniss' efforts go awry, because she has discovered what many of the other victors have discovered: although winning is supposed to be a blessing to the victor, it isn't.

So when Katniss and Peeta go to District Eleven - the home District of Rue and Thresh - everything begins to fall apart. Not because the people of the District harbor a grudge, but because Katniss and Peeta treat them and their fallen children as human. It becomes clear that Katniss' sin was not merely her attempted double-suicide with Peeta, but also in treating Rue like she was more than merely a tool to try to survive the Games. By burying Rue in flowers and singing for her after she had died, and was thus useless as an ally, Katniss honored Rue's basic humanity. And when Thresh let Katniss go rather than killing her, merely to thank her for her treatment of his District-mate, it was a decision not based on seeking an opportunistic advantage, but based upon respect. So when they arrive on their tour, and Katniss and Peeta try to give back to the families of these fallen children, they are doing something that is as dangerous in the Capitol's eyes as defying the Capitol's authority. And when the people of District Eleven seek to show solidarity with the two victors, the Capitol responds with a violent crackdown because not only must they stifle any form of dissent, but they must keep the Districts divided and at each other's throats. Put bluntly: kindness is an anathema to the Capitol.

After the tour, Katniss learns that even announcing her and Peeta's impending nuptials has not been enough to mollify President Snow, and there is nothing to do but wait for the other shoe to drop. And things begin to change for the worse in District Twelve, culminating in a change in the command of the "Peacekeepers" that results in Gale being flogged until he is almost dead. But it isn't until the next Hunger Games are announces that Katniss realizes just how far Snow will go to make an example of her. Because it is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Games, it is the third "Quarter Quell", and to commemorate each Quell the normal rules are changed. In one of the previous Quells (coincidentally the Games that Haymitch participated in), the number of tributes was doubled. In the other, the participants were selected by vote and not by a lottery. But in this Quell, the participants will be selected from previous victors in the Games. And this is an arrow pointed directly at Katniss, as she is the only female victor from her District, and thus will certainly be chosen to go back into the arena. And this also virtually guarantees Peeta's return to the fight, because the only other alternative would be for Haymitch to be chosen, and it is doubtful that if Haymitch was chosen and Peeta didn't choose to volunteer to replace him that Peeta would ever be able to face anyone in District Twelve ever again.

And this is the only way for Snow to penalize Katniss and not have it make things worse for him. If he were to simply have her killed, or have Peeta killed, it would make them martyrs. Because they had already made Katniss' relationship with her mother and sister something of a human interest story. it would be politically unwise to kill them too. But by throwing Katniss back into the arena with the victors of other games, they will be pitting her against the heroes of the other Districts, and she'll either have to kill them to survive, and thus presumably incur the ire of their adoring fans, or she'll be killed by them and become just another casualty of the games. More chillingly, only Katniss or Peeta can survive the Games, because one can be certain by this point in the book that the loophole that was opened in the last Games that allowed them both to live had been firmly closed. But this strategy is not without risk for the Capitol. Part of the implied contract surrounding the Hunger Games is that the victors are thereafter safe, and by breaking this deal, Snow is taking a huge gamble.

And almost immediately, the gamble seems to have mixed results as the selections are made across Panem yielding a grab bag of competitors, some seeming strong and healthy, some emotionally wrecked by their experience, an older wisp of a woman, a man with one hand, and most wrenchingly, a mother who is chosen and then embraces her children before making her way to the stage. But the poignancy of this scene is tempered by the realization that in a typical Hunger Games, the mother would be embracing her child as her offspring set off to fight and die in the arena. The danger for the Capitol in forcing the victors back into the arena is twofold. First, it breaks the implicit promise made to the participants that if they won the Games, they were thereafter safe. By putting them back into the arena, the message sent to all the Districts is that no one is safe. But if no one is safe, then there is little point in continuing to obey the authority of the Capitol. Second, by selecting from the ranks of the victors, Snow is sending people into the arena who know one another already. In previous Hunger Games, the participants would enter the arena entirely on their own, in some cases barely even knowing the tribute from their own District. But for all of those years the previous victors would be brought back to the Capitol as part of the circus that surrounded every Hunger Games and put on display, but this meant that they all got to know one another and form friendships based on their common experience. This changes the formula, because people who know each other will have a harder time dehumanizing each other to the point they can kill without hesitation, and an easier time working together.

So when all of the competitors are brought together for the usual pre-Games circus, it doesn't surprise the reader that they begin to show signs of solidarity. And given her track record, it also isn't surprising that Katniss gravitates towards the broken, the disadvantaged, and the apparently helpless, much to Haymitch's dismay. But of course, everyone assumes that this solidarity will break down once they enter the arena, and it does as the participants who held hands and stood as one the day before set to killing one another with gusto. But the atmosphere in the arena is different this time, with Haymitch having arranged alliances behind Katniss' back and competitors acting strangely. Not only that, Katniss enters the Games with the Capitol's eye fixed firmly upon her, and the gamesmakers, presumably at the behest of President Snow, have  arranged several events that seem directed at unnerving her and penalizing those who she has interacted with directly, even in the most cursory manner. Katniss' strategy is different this time, and that is reflected in her choices, and there are plenty of wrenching scenes of sacrifice and death as the participants have to decide what is truly important to them. In the end, Katniss is faced with yet another choice as she has to decide who her enemies are and who her allies are.

Filling out the world in which Katniss lives, Collins deepens and expands the story. At the same time, she manages to keep the focus intensely personal by continuing to tell the story from a first person perspective. Combining this sharp personal focus with a wider perspective that fills in the bigger picture for the reader, Catching Fire builds on The Hunger Games, giving one a fuller understanding of what makes Panem the terrifying place that it is, while at the same time giving the reader the ability to experience the terror it engenders first hand via Katniss' eyes. Catching Fire is able to retain all of the elements that made The Hunger Games such an interesting and gripping book while making the world seem larger and more complete at the same time and as a result is a more than worthy successor to the first volume.

Previous book in the series: The Hunger Games
Subsequent book in the series: Mockingjay

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