The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
**Warning: Spoilers Below** Wow.
This is an awesome and impressive novel with both compelling plot and characterization as well as a very ominous connection with history and myth. It should make an impressive movie, and makes the reader want to tear into the next books in the series to see more where this one came from. The true wonder of a book like this is how it succeeds on its own merits as a page-turning suspenseful novel and also draws a great deal of depth from the cauldron of myth and history. To succeed on both levels so powerfully requires a fair-minded reviewer (who knows nothing of the author’s background or previous work) to give credit to the success on both levels.
On a deeper level, this novel is filled with a deep resonance in myth and history. The novel’s heroine, a coal miner’s daughter from the Appalachians named Katniss, comes from a half-breed background, half-capital dweller, half-impoverished girl from the “seam” of coal that District 12 citizens mine out of the hills I call home. Her half-and-half origin signals her as a decisive figure in myth, as does her Minerva-like hunting skills with the bow. The postcapocalytpic world of Panem, with its gleaming Capitol filled with aristocrats and circus maximus bloodsport, its unreality and pageantry, strikes one of a Roman Empire with privileged core and exploited periphery.
The fact that the empire rules by divide and conquer, pitting its provinces (called “districts,” against each other, a very Roman way to govern, and features names like Claudius Templeton (not an accident, I presume) also points to the Roman nature of this future nation. The obsession with media and body modification is meant to point out the shallow and unrealistic aspects of our own modern media culture taken to further extremes. The aspect of the male and female tribute bearers sent to their deaths looks back to the Greek myths about the Mycenean/Arzawan tribute of boys and girls to the Minotaur of Crete. The exploited and resourceful nature of the Appalachian “tributes,” whose participation in the cruel Hunger Games (cruel to anyone who has known hunger) is a sign of the exploitation of that area by the wealthy core of Panem, full of cruelty and abominations against nature, strikes a strong chord with this resourceful and resilient son of Appalachia.
But even a reader who knows nothing about Roman or Greek myth and history is still likely to find a great deal of meaty, ominous prose to tear through ravenously. Katniss is a tough, resourceful young woman who seems unaware of her own powerful effect on men, until the Hunger Games awaken a confused sense of romance within herself to go along with her strong will and determination and clever survival skills. Her partner in crime, the canny but lovestruck Peeta, also strikes an appealing note as a strong but sensitive young man who truly knows what it is like to love the remote, rebellious heroine (it would be hard not to love her for her spunk and wit).
The more adept reader will spot the signs of deep rebellion and also divine providence within these pages. Region 13, which has to be the Southeastern United States, was wiped off the map with toxic bombs for its rebelliousness (!). Katniss and Peeta’s defiant attempt to kill themselves simultaneously threatens the “game” that the Capitol uses to divide and conquer and hint at future rebellions in the remainder of the trilogy. Even Cinna (another Roman name) and his advice and clothing choice for Katniss hints at his own feelings of rebelliousness towards Imperial Panem, and Katniss’ friendship with a traitorous Avox whose life she once failed to save hints that much deeper and darker matters are afoot.
Nonetheless, despite the very ominous note the book rings, the book has a very strong streak of Divine Providence. Katniss recognizes the intelligent human design of the Games and their intent on providing “Bread and Circus” to distract and confuse the masses, but the outcome of the Games hinges on intelligence design of an apparently divine sort, based on works and love, that most mysterious of magical forces. This love is seen by Katniss and Gale’s hunting in the beginning, by Katniss choosing to volunteer for her sister when her name is called, and by Katniss and Peeta working together mysteriously throughout the Games. It is also love that allows Katniss to work together with the clever and resourceful Rue (who reminds Katniss so of her younger sister) and avenge her death, as well as save her own life when Thresh refuses to kill her because of her defense of Rue. There seems to be a code of honor among the provincials from the poorer regions that strives to overcome the contrived differences forced upon them by the cruel creators of the Hunger Games.
Whatever happens in the remainder of the series, this book does what it is supposed to do–rivets the reader with a compelling and dramatic plot and characters the reader gets the chance to see beneath the surface, gives chilling hints of our own exploitation of the poor and oppressed within our midst and outside throughout our history until today (including the Appalachian hill folk I happen to belong to, among others), and hints and ominous and deeply bloody retribution to follow for the sins of our own imperial nation. The novel is gripping and powerful, speaking conspiratorially to its reader as a fellow rebellious outsider while subtly warning the reader against collaboration with the evil systems that seek to dominate and exploit us all.
The novel even manages, in a very striking way, to hit the same note that J.K. Rowling did towards the end of her sixth novel in the Harry Potter series (page 512 in the hardback version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), from which I will give a closing quote, as it explains well the actions and perspective of Katniss and Peeta in the Arena: “But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew–and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents–that there was all the difference in the world.” And so there is.