Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins Book 2 of the Hunger Games
Catching Fire is the second book in The Hunger Games Trilogy. When we last left Katniss, the protagonist, she had been declared the winner of The Hunger Games along with Peeta, the other contestant of district 12. This win came at a great personal cost to her and was further complicated by the fact that on the return trip, she had to tell Peeta that she was unsure of her feelings for him.
Upon returning to district 12, Katniss settles into her new life. For the first time in her life she has the money not to have to worry about feeding her family; however, life in district 12 remains the same for everyone else. Her best friend Gale, now has to work 12 hours a day in the mines and so fills her time hunting for food to feed his family. For all that she gained being declared a winner, Katniss lost the closeness with Gale, a relationship that meant the world to her for five years. It turns out that having watched all of those tender kisses in the arena, Gale decided to declare his feelings for her with a kiss.
Katniss’ life quickly becomes even more complicated when she is visited by President Snow before starting on the victory tour with Peeta. He tells her that she become a symbol throughout the country thanks to her treatment of Rue and the fact that she threatened to commit suicide rather than engage in a battle to the death with Peeta. Snow tells her that the unity of the country is at stake, and on this tour she must convince the populace that her actions stemmed from being a silly girl caught up in love, rather than a desire to flout the power of the government.
For Katniss, it feels as though the very fate of Panem and the people that she loves rests upon her shoulders. She was only trying to survive and never meant to become a symbol to anyone. On the tour Peeta and Katniss agree to be friends and understand that for better or worse they are in this together. When they arrive at District 11 the home of Rue, Katniss thanks them for their gift and a man responds by whistling the very same tune that Rue whistled during the game. The crowd follows by saluting Katniss with the same salute she gave Rue before leaving her dead body. The government responds by shooting the man dead in front of Peeta and Katniss. As the violence increases Peeta proposes to Katniss in the hopes of having people believe the cover story of a couple in love but it is all for naught.
When Katniss returns to district 12 she meets two women who have escaped their district because of the violence due to open rebellion. They tell her that they are headed to District 13. Katiss is shocked because the government claims to have destroyed that district but the women claim that it is ruse and that in actuality the government reached a statement with District 13 because of their possession of nuclear weapons. Katniss begins to think of taking those she loves and escaping before things can get out of hand. Both Gale and Peeta agree to go with her but before she can actually formulate a plan to leave the government announces the quarter quell - a Hunger Game in which all former victors must participate in a special lottery and once again enter the ring.
There were many of the same themes present in Catching the Fire as there were in The Hunger Games. Many of the themes of oppression and classism are similar to what we saw in book 1 - and don’t really need repeating exactly but they are extremely well done and continue to be writ large.
But one of the new themes we started to see was hopelessness and inevitability. Especially in relation to oppression. Here Katniss has won the game. She is supposed to be as privileged as it is possible for a member of the districts to be. for the first time she doesn’t have to struggle to eat, for the first time she doesn’t have to fight to survive. She knows her sister is as safe as it’s possible to be and her mother has the resources to run the business she’s always wanted. Yet despite this, she’s still not safe. She has the constant pressure of the President’s threat looming over her, all her stability is an illusions, subject to being revoked on a whim. Her safety was an illusion - and one that inevitably lead her again back to the Games. And not just her, but the other Victors who, themselves, seemed to be the peak of their societies - none of them were safe.
Similar to that, we see the change of control in district 12. The people of district 12 had a comfortable rut - it was hard, people were oppressed and people starved, but compared to district 11 they were relatively comfortable. But that all changes this book with a new, more brutal, more sadistic overseer who enforces the rules brutally. Again, that safety, that comfort they had is illusory. It can be removed at any time and it shows oppressed groups, especially under an authoritarian regime, can never really be safe and can never relax or take their security for granted.
And that safety was universally illusory. While the districts are the most obviously threatened, even Cinna, a respected capital native and the former head of the games were both killed at the whim of President Snow. If there’s one thing this book made clear it is that no-one is safe and in an authoritarian society, conformity is a necessity.
We’re also introduced to a topic that is developed in the next book - the power of a symbol, a symbol of hope. It also shows how dangerous a symbol, an idea is to an authoritarian government - how hard it is to truly quash an idea or symbol. In a way it is reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 where Newspeak was created to destroy the very language of defiance because so long as people can think it, there’s no way to truly quash it. And so we see here the power of that symbol, of the Mockingjay, inspiring people in all these districts based on nothing more than a handful of berries. And, in turn it shows the measures the authority has to go to to try to oppress it.
Looking at that system, we also see a point that you cannot win in a system that is rigged for you to lose. Katniss won the Hunger Games but still lives with the threat over her life. Gale works 12 hours every day in the mines to feed his family - but still needs hunting to supplement their diet. even doing everything they can, everything they should do, they still can’t win.
And, perhaps most poignant in this series, we are faced with the inevitable truth about revolution - people are going to die. Always. There will be losses and there will be sacrifices and there will be people killed unjustly. Just like the last book, we see more people die and the losses that stain this series continue - there is always a cost.
This series continues to be great books that examine oppression and classism as well as revolution through a very stark and sometimes even painful lens. It’s an extremely powerful and impactful series that is gripping from the very first word.