Monday, 22 February 2010

Book Review: Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins

Read: September 2009

Catching Fire in one tweet-sized chunk:
Catching Fire does exactly that, igniting eyes-glued-to-the-page compulsion like few other books can. But then it goes off the boil.

If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely. Never speak of them. Pretend they were nothing but a bad dream. But the Victory Tour makes that impossible. Strategically placed almost midway between the annual Games, it is the Capitol's way of keeping the horror fresh and immediate. Not only are we in the districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capitol's power each year, we are forced to celebrate it. And this year, I am one of the stars of the show. I will have to travel from district to district to stand before the cheering crowds who secretly loathe me, to look down into the faces of the families whose children I have killed...”

Months have passed since Katniss and Peeta cheated the odds and scored a surprise and subversive victory in the 74th Hunger Games. Now, faced with the obligatory Victory Tour and the need to once more impersonate a perfect couple, Katniss longs for the obscurity and freedom of her previous life. Though it is no longer a financial necessity, she continues to hunt outside the electrified fence and frequent the dodgy Hob. She regularly visits her old home, and the family of an old friend. It may not be perfect, but at least it is her life. For now.

One night, however, Katniss returns home to a surprise visit from the sinister President Snow who reveals that her little act of rebellion, her little victory over the Gamemakers, has had wider implications than she could have predicted. The situation is simple: the Victory Tour goes smoothly or she will be in trouble. For everyone knows that acts of rebellion, even ones solely designed to stay alive, rarely escape punishment in Panem. The effect of challenging an omnipotent state and winning, in any context, is to question the very existence of that power.

Catching Fire quickly proves an appropriate title as Katniss and Peeta struggle valiantly to save their lives and quench the flames that their actions have ignited. What they see on tour shows just how far things have progressed. There are rumours of a secret district, messages passed around in baked loaves of bread, simple acts of defiance. Katniss's Mockingjay pin increasingly comes to inspire and encapsulate the rising unease. And all the while President Snow waits in the background, smelling of blood and roses, embodying the omnipresence of the state, the ability to destroy with just a nod. Now seventeen, and in the middle of an awkward love triangle she has no interest in being part of, Katniss is propelled into a world of adult games for adult stakes. The violence may be less physical and imminent than it was in the arena, but it is no less deadly. And with the 75th anniversary Quarter Quell looming and outright rebellion starting to spread, it appears that it wont be long before the authorities put out the fire once and for all...

The Hunger Games focused to such an extent on the eponymous games that we gained only a tantalising glimpse of the powerful forces that gave rise to it. Catching Fire is a far more intriguing book because the gaps start to be filled in. I've always been a fan of the middle book in a trilogy, or the penultimate one of longer series. They are generally the chance for an author to set the scene for what is to come, to focus on character and setting rather than plot. The slower pace allows for more detailed investigation into the background of a situation; the knowledge that there is already a committed readership eager to know more provides a certain leeway for an author to indulgence their imagination and flesh out their world.

And for the first 300-odd pages that is exactly what we get here. We travel with Katniss and Peeta as they travel to various districts of Panem on their Victory Tour, meeting people and seeing places that begin to round out the wider setting. All the while we are aware that events are progressing inexorably towards whatever the Capitol has in store for them, but that is in the future. It is enjoyable simply to stare out of the window and begin to understand. Questions are answered and more are posed. It is fascinating, enthralling, compelling reading. There are scenes back in the Capitol which are cinematic in scope and visual magnificence.

Everything is hotting up nicely.

But then it goes rapidly off the boil. Catching Fire turns out to be a deeply flawed and unbalanced book. It is as though, having spent so long providing background and detail to the world, Collins, loses her nerve and tries to cram in a rehash of The Hunger Games to ensure her readers don't get too bored. There may be a new terrain and different competitors, but it remains the same old Hunger Games. And without the freshness of the last games, the tension that has built up fizzles out. The world-weary and battle-scarred competitors are far less beguiling than their younger counterparts were, and they have neither the time nor, it seems, the compunction to make much of an impact. The effect is that what is supposed to be a dramatic finale to set of the final volume becomes a rushed and truncated affair.

Basically, Catching Fire is too short. The first two thirds are perfectly paced, intriguing and at least as eyes-glued-to-the-page-exciting as The Hunger Games. Probably more so. But the second Hunger Games is crammed in; there is no chance for the tension to ratchet up or the other characters to make sense. The entire reading experience is unbalanced by the distracting knowledge that the pages are running away quicker than the plot is finding resolution. It is a disappointing way to end what is otherwise an exhilarating read.

But pleasingly, the rerun of the Hunger Games is also its epitaph. For better or worse, the final book will have to tread completely new territory. There will be no comforting returns to the all encompassing power of Panem, no reality TV nightmares, no sparkling costumes on launch nights, none of the routine features that have worked so well up until now. The first two-thirds of Catching Fire suggest that Suzanne Collins is more than capable of living up to the hype that will inevitably surround its release. Mockingjay should be a dramatically different book, and I'm awaiting it all the more eagerly for this.

Edition shown: US edition, Scholastic Press, September 2009, ISBN: 9780439023498, 400 pp
Current UK edition: Scholastic, September 2009, ISBN: 9781407109367, 480 pp

7.5 out of 10

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