Poilar Crookleg is a member of a village at the foot of the Wall, the large mountain atop which the gods reside. Since time immemorial, his village, aPoilar Crookleg is a member of a village at the foot of the Wall, the large mountain atop which the gods reside. Since time immemorial, his village, and other villages like it, each year sends forty individuals to climb the Wall. Successful climbers will reach the top and learn the wisdom of the gods for their villages' benefit. No one in the villages knows what happens to unsuccessful climbers, except that very, very few climbers are successful.
As a descendant of the First Climber, and the son and grandson of climbers, Poilar has always known his destiny as a climber. When the winnowing comes, Poilar is indeed one of the year's forty climbers. The novel tells the story of that climb: what Poilar and the others see along the way, the titular kingdoms they encounter, and the ultimate wisdom they gain during their climb. The story is in Poilar's own words, presenting his successes and failures during the journey.
The story has many of the trappings of Big Ideas to it. Possibly the most readily apparent is its discussions and approaches to sexuality. (Without getting into too much detail best learned through the book's revelations, Poilar's culture's treatment of sexuality has no real-world parallel I'm aware of.) The story also regularly presents situations testing the climbers' resolve and indomitability, offering lessons in perseverance. In the background hover questions of faith, religion, and the nature of the gods themselves. The story thus provides much fodder for reflection, as resonant stories do.
But I can't rate this story very highly for one reason: its near-relentless depression. The climbers, in continuously diminishing numbers, prevail against all manner of adversity encountered along the way. Yet each obstacle stands as monument not just to the shortcomings of prior climbers, but to their abject failures and and abandonment of their vows to prevail over the mountain. Each failure questions why previous climbers failed in that manner, almost always leaving that question unresolved, with too little information for the reader even to hypothesize. The climbers (and the reader) leave each successive challenge not invigorated for future conflict, but simply further wearied. The ultimate resolution is largely consistent with this prior trend.
I don't demand steady optimism from all stories. Lack of true conflict makes for shallowness and predictability. It's great that, for example, George R.R. Martin's excellent A Song of Ice and Fire novels buck the trend toward relentlessly-successful protagonists encased in Plot Armor.
But I do require occasional hints of optimism, of the importance and worthiness of the characters' strivings (even those that in hindsight are misguided). I need moments that make me cheer. In the words of a review of a much more recent fantasy novel, I need "something to love." A Song of Ice and Fire regularly gives me that, even with (or perhaps because of) its brutal treatment of characters (and readers). This book didn't.
This story begins optimistic and steadily declines into apprehension, melancholy, dashed hopes, and despair. There are a few moments of light in a few instances of character development. (Even still, I think Poilar remains a bit flat.) But they are few and far between. And I can't remember a single moment in the story where I wanted to cheer.
It's not necessarily a bad book; I fully expect many readers will love it. But for the reasons stated, it doesn't appeal to me. And worse than simple absence of appeal: if I knew then what I know now, I would not have read this book the first time. I can almost always appreciate the perspectives and experiences of stories I don't like, as fresh and unusual experiences, even when I simultaneously dislike the stories. Variety and treatment of material I wouldn't ordinarily seek out are valuable. But this book's persistent negativity overcomes even my appreciation for variety. That's very, very rare.
Three stars. (And if I weren't grading on a curve that partially corrects for my predilection for stories with uplifting moments, I could easily drop to two.)...more
The Capitol is back on its heels, facing off against the first well-organized resistance it's ever encountered. Led by the Mockingjay (Katniss) and DiThe Capitol is back on its heels, facing off against the first well-organized resistance it's ever encountered. Led by the Mockingjay (Katniss) and District Thirteen, its land slowly dwindles as the rebellion grows increasingly successful. But what will replace it? This is the question that grows increasingly important as the story progresses.
The strength of these books has always been the novel idea of the Hunger Games underlying them. This book transitions from the successful events-then-Games-then-events model to a different one. Rather than following an essentially personal story, with undertones of a broader struggle, this book focuses much more on that broader struggle. From the start, even, this is Katniss's story only because she is important to that struggle, not because she has her own story to tell. The previous two books executed the personal-story angle pretty well; unfortunately, this book doesn't do the war-story angle as well. I think partly this is because Collins's first-person approach and pacing, which she writes quite well, just doesn't work as well for it. This was one part of why I found this book less satisfactory than its predecessors.
Past that, of course, we encounter the implausibilities and plot holes which seem to be a feature of these books. The Capitol's technology is too good for me to believe that Katniss could possibly make a leisurely visit to District Twelve at the book's open. I didn't find the ambiguous moral character of District Thirteen to be sufficiently well communicated prior to hearing its reaction to Katniss's demands; their rigidity of society seemed to follow from the exigencies of war, and even more particularly from the confining nature of where they had to survive. (And why wouldn't they have spread out beyond District Thirteen itself, anyway? They had the technology to do it, certainly.) I don't believe Katniss to be such a shrinking violet that the special mission midway through the book (view spoiler)[(to retrieve Peeta, and Annie) (hide spoiler)] should ever have been necessary; she's too intelligent for that. Continuing on, I don't believe President Coin's little twist a bit before the end (view spoiler)[(to send the mentally-unhinged Peeta along with the assassin team) (hide spoiler)] could have happened -- the end wasn't so close that the gamble could have been sufficiently non-risky yet. And I don't believe anyone in the rebellion could have successfully made the penultimate suggestion (view spoiler)[(to have a final Hunger Games using Capitol children) (hide spoiler)] an actual policy. Some of the tributes might be up to suggesting it, certainly, but no one (or ones) could have had the political capital to actually pull it off.
Those complaints aside, was this an adequate ending to the series? It did the job, but I can't say very much more than that. The first two books I can imagine picking up and rereading pretty easily, but the third one doesn't hold much more than average interest for me in that regard. I did like the bit just before the ending (view spoiler)[where Katniss shoots Coin (hide spoiler)] -- it had a ring of authenticity to it. (Although it seems not something that would ever have been actually possible, if this were real and not a story.) And the last bit of ending was, I thought, a pretty good wrapup to a best-selling series (certainly better than the end to the Harry Potter books). But overall, this was a step down from the first two books....more
I'd promised in my review of The Hunger Games that I was going to wait for the second and third books of the trilogy to be available from the libraryI'd promised in my review of The Hunger Games that I was going to wait for the second and third books of the trilogy to be available from the library before reading them. Two weeks later, tempted by instant gratification by Kindle, I bought and read the latter two books in one weekend, in a single sitting interrupted only by sleep. Yay for self-control.
Catching Fire chronicles Katniss Everdeen's time (spoilers for the first book begin here) after having won the Hunger Games in the first book. If you recall, she won a high-stakes game of chicken against the Capitol to do so, threatening to poison both Peeta and herself and deprive the Capitol of any victor rather than play by the rules to produce just one. She belatedly attempted to portray herself as hopelessly in love with Peeta, caught in the throes of irrationality. Was she believable?
Right off the bat she meets with President Snow, who informs her in no uncertain terms that she wasn't convincing enough and must step it up, particularly during a victory tour midway between Games. She tries, she really does -- but you've read how she does at acting in the first book, so you can guess how that goes. Things spiral downward as the Capitol grows increasingly (yet covertly, to start) antagonistic. Going any further into the plot now would be telling, unfortunately, so I'll have to leave it at that.
The novelty of the idea of the first book may be gone. But other than on that point, I think this book is an improvement on the first. Katniss grows significantly as a character. In the first book she was almost unidimensionally concerned with the well-being of her family. She maintains that focus in this book, as one would expect, but she's thinking much more broadly about what that entails, in a world where the Capitol controls nearly everything. She also begins to more seriously consider what it would mean to rebel against the Capitol, both personally and as part of the District Twelve community. Even still, in some aspects she remains as immature as ever(view spoiler)[, for example in how she shuns contact with Peeta any time but when the cameras are rolling, despite there being wisdom in retaining cordiality at the least in the relationship (hide spoiler)]. But she's not going to grow up overnight, so it's understandable.
As far as the plot goes, it still has holes like the first one did. The idea of the Games as something the defeated districts would submit to remains implausible, although (given this is the second in a trilogy, and you can pretty much guess which direction things are ultimately heading here) at least we start to see actual resistance to that rule that you'd have expected from the start. The semi-obvious twist halfway through is also pretty implausible. (view spoiler)[The Capitol really, seriously, is going to put the people with the most repressed animosity towards the Capitol in the arena again? (Especially when some of them are so old they have little to keep on living for, and might concertedly play the game against its purpose, antithetically to the way it's meant to be played.) What could possibly go wrong? In the words of Shylock:
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Assuming the Capitol has it out for Peeta and Katniss in particular, surely a covert assassination — an "accident" — is a far more attractive way to deal with the problem. It doesn't provide your greatest enemies with a platform for near-open rebellion. Done right, it'll be semi-believable, or at least provides plausible deniability. In contrast, according to Katniss everyone knows that everything that happens in the arena occurs at the whim of the Capitol. How could her death in the arena, which would seem to require intervention of some sort given her general resourcefulness, ever be interpreted as coincidence (especially given the show the tributes put on during pre-Quell interviews)?
On the same topic, how could the Capitol ever be stupid enough to give tributes an open mic in early districts like they gave Katniss and Peeta in District Eleven? Katniss grasps the power of words (even if she's incapable of using them as she intends, initially). Why is the Capitol so dense in comparison?
On the other hand, at least at the end of the book the gloves finally come off the Capitol. That's entirely believable, except for it taking them so long. (hide spoiler)]
All in all, though, plot holes aside, this is better than the first book. If you read the first book, it's definitely worth continuing to the second....more
It's been a rather long time since I did that -- read a reasonable-length book in a single sitting. Last time I did that was...maybe Harry Potter andIt's been a rather long time since I did that -- read a reasonable-length book in a single sitting. Last time I did that was...maybe Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? In any case, it's been awhile since I read a true page-turner I wouldn't put down. (Although I'm certain the relative brevity of this book -- I have read Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, and the Wheel of Time lately -- had something to do its being awhile.)
How to describe this book plotwise? Think The Lottery meets reality TV, or think kids meet the gladiator arena. Basically, the one far-dominant nation-state in North America -- the Capitol -- has utterly subjugated twelve subordinate districts (and reduced a thirteenth to irradiated embers). Each district must annually send two "tributes" -- a male and a female between the ages of 12 and 18, chosen by lottery -- to fight to the death in the arena in the Hunger Games. The Games are a pageant from start to finish to entertain the Capitol, which eagerly watches (and forces the districts to watch) until one tribute remains (to be showered with honor for life, and whose district will be honored for that year). The arena itself is a massive tract of land under the total control of the Capitol -- terrain, vegetation, weather, and resources. The tributes learn skills and acquire supporters (who can sometimes send supplies), then they are deposited in the arena. It's a fight to the death -- first for a Cornucopia of supplies positioned at the arena entrypoint, then a protracted strategic dance to attack, and survive the attacks of, the other tributes.
A logical plot? Well, not entirely. The Capitol and districts occupy much of the United States and/or North America, but the impression is that at most total we're talking a few million people, with the rest of the area wild. Given the state of Capitol technology at least, this underpopulation is implausible. And it's hard to think the brutality of the Games a believable possibility in some distant future of our world. (Judged closer in proximity to the original gladiators, maybe. But evil today is generally much more subtle than it was back then -- or at least concerning the United States area particularly -- and I see little reason to believe that subtilty might disappear.) But it's enough to hang a story on it -- and a good story, too. The action comes steadily once the contestants enter the arena, and before then the slow reveal of the mechanics of the game remain captivating. The heroine's cleverness abounds, in a way that naturally fits her youth (and probably would not fit an older, wiser character), and the tactics are a pleasure to consider.
This said, this remains a young-adult novel. The action is mostly for action's sake. We don't learn enough of the underpinnings of the world to truly understand how it has come to be, or why it truly is so, or how it might be (at the far periphery, of course) even ambiguously "moral". We aren't left with much in the way of poignant questions to ponder, of the sort a far better book like Ender's Game (or even the later Harry Potter books) offers. The heroine has some depth, and some of the Capitol stooges surprisingly acquire a little personality by the end, but characterizations are mostly shallow. We're mostly left with a lot of grit (they're trying to kill each other, remember? and of course pageantry will demand it sometimes be brutal) and a dilemma that gets solved. Which is all perfectly fun, to be sure -- but it's not the sort of thing that would cause me to sidetrack reading a hundred pages of the book just because I happened to rearrange it on my bookshelf. (Which happens with all too much frequency for me...)
It was a two-month wait for the hundred-odd people ahead of me at the library to read this so I could borrow a copy; I'm currently 58 of 72 for the second and 22 of 31 for the third (having not considered that, given queue lengths, I should submit holds early, "freezing" holds if needed before they might prematurely vest). Will I wait for my name to move to the front of these queues to continue reading? It seems likely I will, rather than buy the later books to read them faster. I found the characters interesting, yet I'm not emotionally invested in them, and the ending is not a cliffhanger of the sort demanding immediate resolution. I can wait.
(...and, two weeks later, I find myself buying the entire series in Kindle editions on Amazon. Because the library queue is still huge, instant gratification is irresistible, and I keep having to watch out for spoilers when reading things online. Perhaps I should add another star...but no. This book was what it was, and needing to read further doesn't change that.)...more