Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review - Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Short review: Katniss' time in the Hunger Games is over, but now she must take her place in a brutal war where it is almost impossible to tell friend from foe.

The Games are over
Now Katniss is in a war
Even winners lose

Full review: Mockingjay is the third and last book in the Hunger Games series. As the closer to the series, it is adequate, but it simply isn't as good as the previous two books. Having established Katniss as an girl of action in the first two installments, she is sidelined with almost nothing to do for much of this one. Instead of a dynamic figure central to the drama surrounding the Hunger Games, Katniss is now a publicity stunt stuck on the fringes of a wider war. In part because the story has expanded to encompass what has developed into a full-scale revolt against the Capitol, the first person perspective that gave the tight focus on Katniss and made both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire such compelling story telling now works against the story.

The story opens shortly after Katniss had broken the arena in Catching Fire and the conspiracy of all the competitors headed by Haymitch and Plutarch had been revealed. Along with the rest of what is left of District twelve, Katniss and her family take refuge in the previously thought to be destroyed District Thirteen. Under President Coin, the leader of District Thirteen, the other Districts have begun to rise in revolt against the Capitol. Having set the stage and provided the spark that ignited the rebellion, Katniss is now asked to be the public face of the rebel movement, a position that she is hesitant to take, especially given that when she was extracted from the arena in Catching Fire, the rescue forces were unable to also bring Peeta to safety, and he is being held by President Snow.

Katniss' ambivalence at her projected role as the symbolic figurehead of the rebellion means that she is sidelined out of the action for much of the book. While Gale, Haymitch, Plutarch, Beetee, and even her sister Prim are busy actively contributing to the war effort, Katniss is both too important to risk as a soldier and too inexperienced to be entrusted with command. Consequently she spends a fair amount of the book doing nothing but moping around the vast underground complex that makes up District Thirteen. And while this makes the story somewhat slow-moving and less action packed than its predecessor, it gives Collins the ability to demonstrate that even though the regime imposed by the Capitol is a dystopian nightmare, just because District Thirteen offers an alternative doesn't mean that alternative is not potentially also a dystopian nightmare. While the Capitol kept everyone impoverished and brutalized, in District Thirteen, every waking moment of a resident's day is regulated. Every citizen is handed a schedule each morning, and is expected to follow it. How much every person eats is strictly controlled, even to the extent that when Katniss finds her former prep team being held by the District, they are locked to a wall and apparently tortured, with the justification for the treatment being that they had stolen extra bread to eat - evoking shades of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Although Katniss, as a result of her somewhat special status, is not necessarily constrained by the full array of rules that more ordinary citizens must adhere to, this special treatment only further serves to illustrate that District Thirteen is not as fair a place as one might hope.

And so, lurking in the background of rallying the Districts against the Capitol is the question: are the citizens of Panem fighting to simply replace one form of tyranny for another? While the reader joins the characters in getting caught up in the justified hatred for the Capitol, Collins introduces the subtle counterpoint that maybe by being so focused on the obvious enemy, a more sinister enemy might be insinuating itself into power. But everyone in the story is so busy trying to persuade the Districts to the rebel cause and root the hated government troops out of their fortresses that lost in all the hatred is the question of what will replace rule by President Snow. Not only that, although Finnick exposes a host of Snow's evils, in doing so he reveals why Snow always smells of blood, and the revelation diminishes rather than enhances Snow's stature as an agent of terror. By making him more human, Finnick reduces Snow from an ominous figure to a somewhat desperate one - crafty and cunning, but still desperate. In a way, much of this book is a caution against the kind of blind hatred that Gale has expressed throughout the series. Gale's fury, and the fury of many who side with the rebellion, results in a monomaniacal focus on Snow and the Capitol that hides the dangers that lurk within their own ranks, and the dangers of transforming anger into an unreasoning animus.

The story also contains tragic counterpoints to the larger one that unfolds of the continent-wide war. To gain revenge against Katniss as well as discredit her as the symbolic Mockingjay of the rebellion, Snow has Peeta tortured and uses him in counter-propaganda. And even when they rescue Peeta, Snow's hand reaches out to touch Katniss through the terrible mind-altering agonies Peeta had been to at the President's command. Eventually, the story builds to a journey through a pseudo-arena at which point Katniss comes back to life after sleepwalking through much of the book. Back in her element with several of the other surviving participants of the games, Katniss struggles to her goal of revenge. But at the last minute, the ruthless attitude towards war evidenced earlier in the book by her friend Gale and put into action to crack a powerful Capitol stronghold comes back to savage Katniss in the most devastating way. Katniss learns, on a personal level, that once you commit to total war as the means of achiveing your objectives, then no one is safe.

After the war the book both becomes more interesting and loses focus at the same time. By trying to cram too many elements into the final chapters of the book, Collins skims over much of the denouement, and as a result, the ending feels rushed and forced. When Coin approaches all of the surviving Hunger Game victors with a plan to slake the Districts' thirst for revenge, the discussion over the implications of what they are voting upon is almost perfunctory. The most important confrontation between Katniss and her nemesis is hurried through. In the end, Katniss is faced with yet another critical decision to make, and although she makes what seems to be the best choice she could, it is also hurried through and seems almost like a decision borne out of a childish impulse. In the end, everything is wrapped up in a big bow and Collins hands the reader something of a happy ending, although once again the description of the ending feels like it is given a cursory and rushed treatment.

Following up on The Hunger Games and Catching Fire was always going to be difficult given how strong both of those books are. Following up on them was made even more difficult by the changed nature of the story - by moving Katniss from the confined nature of the arena and the political machinations surrounding it, Collins had to move her to the wider world and a tight first-person story about a continent spanning war is hard to keep interesting when the viewpoint character is a bit player kept in the dark for most of the plot. Even though Katniss was clearly the most compelling and interesting character with the most salient story to tell in the previous books, in this book one starts to wonder if it would be more interesting to follow along with Gale or Prim or Beetee or Haymitch or Plutarch. And when the reader is thinking about the other stories the author could have told rather than the one the author is telling, then that's a sign that a book has lost its center. Eventually Katniss comes back into her own late in the book - especially when she finally explains to her fellow citizens what the reader probably figured out two books earlier that as long as the Districts fight one another for the Capitol's table scraps the only one that wins is the Capitol - but this portion of the book is far too brief and she is sidelined again fairly quickly.

Although Collins does bring the story of Panem to a more or less satisfying conclusion and ties up all the loose ends, Mockingjay seems stalled in neutral for much of its length. When it does get going, it shifts into a too-rushed overdrive and glosses over several plot elements and critical pieces of story resolution in a casually perfunctory manner. Readers who enjoyed the previous two installments of the Hunger Games series will want to read Mockingjay for closure, but the book simply isn't up to the standards of the previous books, and although it is still quite good, it is something of a disappointment as a result.

Previous book in the series: Catching Fire

2011 Locus Award Nominees

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