**spoiler alert** Ok. That was an intense week. This series is like a non-stop roller coaster ride of death from the first page to the very last. Did...more**spoiler alert** Ok. That was an intense week. This series is like a non-stop roller coaster ride of death from the first page to the very last. Did I mention the death? Because there is a whole lot of it. I've heard there have been mixed reviews of this final book, and I'm going to guess they mostly have to do with the ending, so before I read those reviews, here's what I thought about the finale.
It's almost impossible to end a dystopian story in a satisfying way. One of the main reasons to tell this kind of tale is to level a critique upon the present day (usually a scathing one), either to make the reader see how the fictional horrors reflect upon our own world, or warn us about the horrors today's decisions could entail. Ending a dystopia without crushing all remaining hope for humanity's redemption undermines these goals, to some extent, because Hell isn't quite as effective a deterrent if there's some hope of escape. 1984 is pretty much the quintessential example.
However, who wants to read about heros who fight for nothing? And perhaps more importantly, why should we heed a dystopia's warnings when Hell seems inevitable (which it should if the author did a good job)? So maybe it can be appropriate to top off the suffering with a dollop of hope, a la the very, very end of The Road. The trick is to do it in a way that doesn't insult the reader's intelligence by suggesting that evil has been conquered and utopia is finally within reach.
That, if you ask me, is exactly the trick Collins pulled off in this book. Having Coin order the bombing of the children before the mansion and not Snow was an Orwellian, hopeless twist (with a squeeze of Truman/Nagasaki/Hiroshima). That realization removed what, for me, had been a frustrating simplification up until that point, namely that Snow was the Big Bad, the all-powerful antagonist whose defeat would surely end the war and restore peace and love to the galaxy. If Coin killed the kids, though, then she was just another Snow, and if there were 2, then there were many, many more to follow. While depressing, that is a much more satisfying reflection on reality to me: evil is an integral component of humanity, and we will never be free of it. I read Katniss's approval of a final retributional Hunger Games for the children of the Capitol as another statement of this idea. "Nothing will ever change," she thinks in despair.
Of course, the notion of unending evil doesn't necessarily imply that fighting it is futile, only that it too will be without end. I read Katniss killing Coin as Collins' way of saying something like this, and I view the rather hopeful final chapter and epilogue as reminders that the fight is not for nothing.
Speaking of which, I thought those last scenes were beautiful, from Buttercup and Katniss's cross-species catharsis to Katniss's final realization of who she is and why she can't be that person without Peeta. While I admit that I'm kind of a sap and I might need these things in a story, I didn't think they were Spielbergian sugar coatings. As a reader, I also needed to howl in grief (at least vicariously), and I felt those final scenes provided a vague but satisfying answer the question of who Katniss really is, a question that cannot really be answered in a way that isn't vague.
The very final line also resolves one of the more interesting and currently relevant themes of the book: the real, and the lengths we will go to in order to pervert or escape it. Even though the unreality engine Collins chose to excoriate was television and not something a little more current like social media, I think she did an excellent job demonstrating the dangers of inauthenticity. Katniss is powerless as a rebel symbol when she tries to perform, or when others try to spin her. Her true and very real symbolic potency emerges when she is actually enraged over an attack on a hospital, actually sympathetic for an Avox who wants to hear a song. Peeta's ultimate torture was the theft of reality. Without confidence in what was real, he reverted to mindless savagery. I don't think Collins went anywhere new with this in the final book, but I was happy to see that it remained a vital part of the story. Real or not real?
I don't actually have many complaints. I guess it went on a little long, and there were some parts that definitely made the suspension of disbelief sag: Katniss's unbelievable hunting skill, uneducated miner's children knowing about DNA, the largely conventional nature of warfare and the absence of terrorism. The constant violence definitely wore me down a bit as well, and it would seriously make me hesitate to recommend this to kids under 15 or so. But really, on the whole, it was exciting, poignant, meaningful, and even interesting. Highly recommended to everyone. I'm teetering on the edge of 5 stars.
Update: Ok, I've been reading some reviews. I think Abby makes a good (if brief) case against, and Meredith makes an equally good (if not equally brief) case for. Laura Miller's analysis of modern YA dystopic fiction in the New Yorker is also interesting reading, even if I don't necessarily agree with the argument that this series was morally handicapped by an upbeat ending.(less)
**spoiler alert** Loved it, though I admit I rolled my eyes a bit when I learned they were headed back to the arena. The scene where Katniss speaks to...more**spoiler alert** Loved it, though I admit I rolled my eyes a bit when I learned they were headed back to the arena. The scene where Katniss speaks to the people of District 11 and they silently salute her in the District 12 way was beautiful, and perfectly completed when the Peacekeepers take the leader of the salute and shoot him in the head. Collins, you are sick, and totally awesome. I think I'll save most of my thoughts for the Mockingjay review, though...(less)
Tight, unrelenting action drama in post-apocalyptic fascist middle America! Plug that into the YA hype machine, and, well, you have my attention, but...moreTight, unrelenting action drama in post-apocalyptic fascist middle America! Plug that into the YA hype machine, and, well, you have my attention, but also my squinty-eyed, brow-furrowed skepticism, and since squinty and furrowed is my de facto demeanor, I'm talking some serious squint and furrow. Which made it all the more satisfying to realize, many pages in, that this book is pretty damn good. The pace is terrific, slowing when appropriate but never stuck. This has much to do with Collins' minimalism in describing the world and her characters. Much like Katniss and her family, the story survives on little more than the necessities. Collins doesn't linger too long on exposition or painting exquisite backdrops, which in one sense creates an impoverished environment not unlike The Road, but is not so denuded of humanity that it invokes the horror or hopelessness McCarthy might have been looking for. I cared about Katniss, and while I wasn't sure of her fate, I believed she could win out.
That minimalism is also the main flaw of the book. The constant struggle for survival doesn't leave a lot of room for personality. Katniss is a tough-skinned pragmatist with conscience, Peeta is a shy boy in love, Prim and Rue are just innocent little girls, but what are these people really like? If particularities compose a person, these people barely qualify. Katniss can be hot-headed (firing arrows at the Gamemasters), sentimental (flower burial), and righteous (defying the games), but I've yet to see the essential Katniss-ness these actions delineate, or more importantly, I've yet to get the sense that there something there to figure out.
That, however, is a minor qualm in a YA action novel, especially after only one book in a trilogy. There's a lot more to appreciate here as well. As other reviewers have pointed out, Katniss's self-awareness and the reality TV aspects of the Hunger Games are both interesting and well done. The real and the unreal, the ironic and authentic become ever more entangled as Katniss realizes how important performance is to her survival, but, as always, bending the truth costs her in ways she hadn't predicted. Hoping for more of this in the next books, which I just picked up. Looking forward to getting back to Panem.
Re-read in 2011 Loses nothing on a second read (or, I'm guessing, a third, fourth, fifth...). Saw the pics of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss a few days ago and decided I need to re-affirm my own imagery of Katniss and Panem before this movie tries to supplant it. I think Lawrence looks great as Katniss, but I'm a bit concerned about this projected PG-13 rating. There is a lot of very relevant violence in this series. I'm also hoping they shoot most of it in a realist style to contrast with the way the Capitol portrays events. Capitol footage should be like X-Men, everything else like Winter's Bone. Chances of this happening are slim to nil, but I can hope.(less)
**spoiler alert** When I first read this book, my only caveat was what I thought of as the protracted, sagging middle of the story, in which the trio...more**spoiler alert** When I first read this book, my only caveat was what I thought of as the protracted, sagging middle of the story, in which the trio travel around the country, trying to figure out what to do without really doing much. They break into the Ministry, they revisit Godric's Hollow, they obtain the sword of Gryffindor, but mostly they just relocate, camp in the woods, and try to interpret the intentions of the dead and departed, or deal with their legacies by interpreting the artifactual evidence they left behind. Regulus and the locket; Grindewald and Dumbledore and the fragments of their story indirectly derived from Belinda Bagshot; Lily's letter to Sirius; the deer patronus; the anonymous missives of support left at the grave of Harry's parents in Godric's Hollow; learning about the DA and the Order through the Potterwatch broadcasts, etc.
One example of this was the scene at the Lovegood's, when Harry discovers Luna's private mural of himself, Ron, Hermione, Neville, and Ginny, intertwined with a golden ribbon of the word "friends" repeated over and over. There were some other important narrative elements introduced in this scene, and some action, but the description of this mural had me tearing up. As I read that passage, Luna transformed from an adorably oblivious but ultimately irrelevant side character to this formerly lonely, abandoned human being for whom the DA's friendship was as novel as it was profoundly essential. And I was actually filled with grief that Harry learned this too late, that this crisis was exposing the unbreakable strength underlying all Harry's friendships too late to acknowledge and cherish those bonds for what they were worth.
Except... it wasn't too late, because Luna and many of the others were still alive, and still fighting. So why did I feel like they were dead? This brought to mind a passage from Netherland (which I now feel more inclined to finish):
An ancient discovery was now mine to make: to leave is to take nothing less than a mortal action. [...] after Mama's cremation I could not rid myself of the notion that she had been placed in the furnace of memory even when alive and, by extension, that one's dealings with others, ostensibly vital, at a certain point become dealings with the dead.
For me, this cast the middle section of the book in a completely new light. Now it became an examination of the way the departed, both dead and alive, continue to touch us and affect our lives through the memories and thoughts they leave behind. In Netherland, O'Neil was pointing out the tragedy of this, how even the living can become as distant from us as the dead, but I think Rowling wants the reader to see this as a profoundly important part of being alive, that seeking out and understanding these kinds of evidence makes bearable the void left by the absent. The influence of the dead is important throughout this book and throughout this series, but in this seemingly humdrum plateau of the novel, I think it becomes paramount.
There are lots of other incoherent things I could blather on about, mostly the difference between self-sacrifice and martyrdom and the merits of happy endings, but this review is approaching the edge of "long" with "pointlessly long" well in sight, so I'll finish. I loved this book as I love the whole series, and its existence has made my life better.(less)