Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Book 2, The Hunger Games)

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Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins book cover
Catching Fire (2009) is the second book in Suzanne Collins’s best-selling Hunger Games trilogy. Having escaped from the 74th games with both Peeta’s and her own life intact, Katniss Everdeen has relocated to the winners village in district 12, where she enjoys a standard of living beyond anything she has experienced before. But, with uprisings springing up around the districts, the Capitol's leader, President Snow, is keen to quash the revolutionary spirit that is catching fire, and make an example of Katniss, it’s symbolic leader. Ingeniously, to mark the 75th Hunger Games, it is announced that the contestants will this time be drawn from the pool of previous winners, meaning Katniss will have to re-enter the arena, and fight for her life for a second time. With the Capitol employing increasingly draconian tactics in the districts, and Katniss still caught in a love triangle between Peeta and Gale, the prospect of re-entering the arena is a horrific one and, with President Snow keen on her demise, Katniss must use all her resourcefulness to stay alive.

The games themselves are less prominent in Catching Fire, with the stirrings of a revolution and the totalitarian politics of the Capitol coming to the fore. This makes for a more interesting read, as the games were the weakest part of the The Hunger Games, and a more detailed exploration of the world of Panem is welcome. With small uprisings in some of the districts, one begins to see the power of an idea; Katniss and her Mockingjay acting as a symbol for the revolution and bringing hope to the oppressed. This is in stark contrast to the increasing hopelessness of Katniss's own life. It's a tough irony that, in saving herself and Peeta by a small act of rebellion, Katniss inadvertently locked herself into a life over which she has no control; forced to continue the pretence of loving Peeta, and living out her life with him, else risk the wrath of the Capitol and almost certain death. This sense of inevitability and lack of control perfectly captures a teenage angst, an oppression against which one feels compelled to rebel.

With the plot now focusing more on the political and social climate, and building tension around a potential uprising, the lazy characterisation is brought more sharply into focus. It's hard, in particular, to understand the motivations of characters like Cinna, who seem intent on damaging the Capitol, despite being part of the process of creating the games. Equally strange is Katniss's affection for characters like Effy and the prep team, all vacuous Capitol employees who are as complicit in her plight as the game-makers. Katniss herself bounces between naïve ignorance, and perceptive resourcefulness.

The writing is consistently simplistic, with the added irritant that in this instalment the reader is constantly talked down to, having neat allusions to The Hunger Games, explained in condescending detail, and foreshadowing spelt out in the clearest of manners. There are also scenes that feel entirely unnecessary in the context of Catching Fire, and one can only imagine they will become relevant in Mockingjay, the final book in the trilogy. Equally, there appears to be a disconnect between the events in District 12, and the events in the Capitol; almost two distinct story lines, with only Katniss's occasional references providing a link.

Collins's treatment of Katniss is disappointing. With such a potentially strong, female character, it's a pity that some of her story is given over to a fairly mindless love triangle, which feels slung in to suit the YA audience, and which the story, and Katniss, would be all the stronger for not having to bear. Equally, it's a shame that Katniss couldn't simply be tough and resourceful, but that she also has to be attractive under it all; Collins really chickens out of giving us the strong and unusual character that Katniss Everdeen could have been. The real problem with having your protagonist and narrator involved in a fight to the death, twice, around which the whole series is based, is that it's fairly evident that she will survive, thus sucking a lot of the dramatic tension from the passages within the arena. Indeed, up to this point no characters of consequence have died, and thus there is a distinct lack of peril, which somewhat undermines the whole concept. One final gripe: there is increasingly elaborate violence in this instalment of the games, and yet none of the participants baulk at this. One would hope that, rather than plotting to kill fellow competitors in agonising and brutal ways, they would want to make their ends as short and as clinical as possible.

Having pulled apart some of the main problems with the book, it has to be said that the series is addictive, and it’s clear that YA readers will become really involved in the story. There are some brilliant ideas, and Collins frequently demonstrates a complete harmony with the logic of the world she has created; this really affirms the story as a whole.

I'm still not quite sure what I make of this series as a whole. I can see the appeal for YA readers, but there is just so much about the books that could be better. Fun, addictive, but ultimately a bit pedestrian.


Useful Links
Reviews of Catching Fire on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Catching Fire on Amazon (US)

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6 comments:

Nikki-ann said...

This is a series I've been tempted by, but have yet to pick up the books.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I'd give it a try - they're addictive. Plus there's the movie to look forward to now.

S.A. Hunter said...

Really nice write up. I enjoyed reading it. Cinna is odd. I can't get a bead on him, especially as all the bonding with Katniss happens off the page.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks, I've got a lot of thoughts about this series flowing around my head at the moment, and I'm not sure my reviews are the most clinical. Still, glad you enjoyed reading about it. I'm hoping Cinna is explained further in Mockingjay.

Ryan O'Riordan said...

This is a really interesting review, I personally thought catching fire was just as good as the 1st! Interesting point about none of the important people being killed off. I think the opposite occurs in book 3, but with zero reasoning to it and this is likely to aggregate you further.

I really like your reviewing style and how you dissect the book so mercilessly! I wonder of your possibly be willing to review one of mine?

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Hi Ryan - thanks for the comments. If anything I probably enjoyed Catching Fire a little more. I'm just starting out on Mockingjay at the moment, so I look forward to some of these much needed killings ;)

Glad you enjoy the style, this is probably one of my middle of the road reviews, so eh :s Haha, anyway, if you'd like to submit one of you books take a look at my Review Policy. I get way too many requests to promise anything, but this is how to submit, if you want to. :)