Cannonball Read IV: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
As I am sure, thanks to the movie, everybody knows by now the general plot so please bear with me for the first part of this review. [Spoiler alert! -- mswas]
The action takes place in the future, in a country named Panem which consists of 12 Districts ruled from the city called Capitol. To punish the districts for a past rebellion, the Capitol came up with the annual Hunger Games. These are a very cruel televised contest between children of ages from 12 to 18 who must fight and kill each other in a huge outdoor arena until only one remains. From each district two contenders (called tributes) are randomly picked.
The main character, 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, volunteers in the place of her younger sister, Prim, who is picked for the Games.
Katniss, Peeta (the boy tribute from district 12) and the other contenders are taken to the Capitol for a brief training and then thrown in the arena which is filled with all kind of deadly traps.
Katniss is a survivor who - at home - was devoted to keeping her mother and sister alive. She is a hunter, very good with the bow and arrow but reluctant when it comes to trusting other people or making friends. That's understandable since the world she lives in is pretty much a version of Orwell's 1984 complete with poverty, hunger, lack of basic utilities and a totalitarian ruling regime that enjoys letting children slaughter each other while their parents and friends are forced to watch it on live TV.
Seeing Katniss fight for her life in the arena is horrific and captivating at the same time. A lot of gruesome images unfold - especially when you think that those hacking away at each other are children. The most disturbing one for me was that of a tribute begging Katniss to kill him after he was slowly gnawed into a bleeding hunk of meat by mutant wolves unleashed by the Gamemakers.
The Hunger Games is as much about the battle to survive in the arena as it is about a journey to self knowledge. Maybe above all it is about what it means to be free and to be yourself in a world where being yourself is punishable by death. Peeta says to Katniss in the beginning of the book that in the arena he would like to die as himself: "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not (...) I keep wishing I could think of a way to...to show the Capitol they don't own me. That I'm more than just a piece in their Games." His words will make sense to Katniss only in the end of the book, but first she must learn who she is while thrown in the most inhuman circumstances. As the Gamemakers try to strip the tributes of their humanity and turn them into beasts with only one purpose - survival at all costs, she will struggle to discover and remain herself.
I admired Katniss's determination, her unwillingness to simply give up as she went through every inventively sadistic challenge the Gamemakers threw at the tributes and in the end had to face the greatest challenge of all. She had to choose between giving in to the Capitol's Game, becoming their pawn or living on her own terms - even if that meant actually dying. In the end she doesn't die and she wins the games through an ultimate act of defiance that gives a new dimension to the story.
Katniss's hate for the government, already lit by the unfair life led in the impoverished districts, is fueled by the impossible choices she must face in the arena and becomes the starting point for the next book of The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire.
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