The Story: The Hunger Games, the first novel in the trilogy of the same name by Suzanne Collins, introduces readers to Katniss Everdeen, a teen girl growing up in one of the poorest districts in the nation of Panem. But Katniss’ world is turned upside down when she volunteers in place of her sister to participate in the deadly Hunger Games. In the Games, Katniss is faced with the prospect of slaughtering her competition all in the hopes of being the last one standing. Yet Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, are determined to not let their tyrannical government decide who ultimately lives and who dies.
My Take: This was yet another book I put off reviewing, mainly because it’s so hard to know where to begin and simply saying it’s good just doesn’t seem enough. But I’ll say it anyway – The Hunger Games is so good!
I’m very stingy when it comes to giving five-star ratings on Goodreads, so the only books I allot the maximum number of stars to really deserve each point. This is one of those books that hits every high note a good book should strike in my opinion: compelling characters, intriguing plot, solid pacing, believable world-building, and a strong underlying message that is embedded in the story’s fibers, not preached like a sermon.
First, concerning characters, Katniss Everdeen (the chief protagonist and narrator) is easily one of the best YA heroines I’ve come across in recent years. She is resilient and strong yet vulnerable and feminine. Thankfully, her trials and tribulations have not hardened her to the point where she possesses a heart of stone. Far from it. Her reluctance to start killing in the Games is one of many admirable traits in her favor (though the odds may not always be). Katniss is a model YA character and writers in the same vein would do themselves a valuable service by studying her.
Like many YA stories, this novel contains a love triangle but thankfully there is no insta-love or mushy moments. Katniss’ relationships with Gale and Peeta feel organic and, at least in this first novel, it’s easy to see how she could go either way between them (though, yes, I have read the trilogy and I know who she ultimately picks). Likewise, I appreciated the fact that Gale and Peeta were good contrasts: Gale is the outspoken rebel who has been hardened by life while Peeta is softer-spoken and retains a heart but is by no means a wimp. All in all, the male leads were strongly portrayed and set a good stage for the characters they become.
The supporting cast is also great and it’s easy to have favorites even among the background figures such as Cinna, Haymitch, and Effie. There are no stock characters and each person seems carefully crafted to possess his or her own unique personality, no matter how large or small of a role he or she plays in the story.
Speaking of which, the plot itself hinges primarily on the events inside the arena where the chosen District tributes must fight to the death and survive a hostile environment. While some of the novel’s middle portions could have sagged as middle chapters often do, especially in stories where there is one primary narrator and the setting remains fairly static; however, an efficient pacing keeps these scenes afloat. This was one of those few books I didn’t want to put down because each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, whether big and dramatic or small and subtle. Overall, this novel has some of the best pacing I’ve seen in a long time and I’d recommend it as a good example of pacing for writers on that alone.
The world-building is equally solid as Panem is a futuristic North America, yet the fact it doesn’t call attention to specific locations (such as states or cities) makes it vague enough to stand alone as its own fictional realm. The operations of its tyrannical government are also believable within the story’s confines, and it’s easy to stand by Katniss’ side as she prepares to face down the very law of the land. While President Snow and his regime are diabolical, there are some unwilling participants in the system (such as Cinna) who do what they can to rebel in small ways. This adds to the believability factor as causing all of the Capitol-related figures to be enemies and all of the District populations to be allies would have made the story too cartoony. Thus, there is a good balance here of characters who don’t fall either way on the good-bad spectrum.
Lastly, this novel brings up good questions regarding how much power a government should have and at what point is it considered almost acceptable to rebel. Similarly, it ponders how much “reality” we get when we engage the media as we quickly learn that not everything the citizens of Panem see or hear is 100% the truth. I appreciated Collins’ ability to raise provocative questions and provide answers yet prevent her novel from becoming a socio-political soapbox rant.
Language – Almost non-existent with just a handful of PG-level profanities.
Violence – Probably the biggest sticking point for some readers will be the violence, which, to be fair, is not described in graphic, gory detail nor does it occur on every page. But since the premise of the Hunger Games is to be the last man or woman standing, death and dismemberment are part of the “show.” Again, some readers might be turned off by the fact that these are older children and teens slaughtering each other (as opposed to adult participants) but, again, Collins shows restraint so that you’re more disturbed by the nature of what these children and teens are forced to do as opposed to specifically how they kill and/or die. Overall, this novel is marketed for ages 12/13 and up, which is the youngest I would recommend this for based on its violent content and thematic elements.
Sexual Content – None. There is modest kissing and flirting between Katniss and Peeta but nothing even remotely sexual occurs between them. Elsewhere, some readers might be disturbed to know that Katniss, an older teenage girl, is preened and dressed by an adult prep team while she’s naked, but nothing sexual occurs and the scene is presented simply as a formality and is not meant to titillate.
The Hunger Games is a fantastic dystopian work that raises good questions under the guise of a great story with believable characters and a realistic world that isn’t so far removed from our own. It remains one of my favorite books and I would recommend it to any and all readers looking for a meaty, engaging read to sink their literary teeth into. By the end, you really will be left hungry for its sequels.