Sometime in the future, everyone in Panem, located in what used to be North America, lives at the Capitol or in Districts 1 through 12. Every year, one boy and one girl are chosen from each district to be tributes at the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games, which were started after some past rebellion and are meant to discourage future rebellion, require that each tribute try to kill the other tributes until only one is left. The remaining tribute gets to live out his or her life in comfort, although each year he or she must coach the district's newest tributes. Each district is forced to watch the tributes kill each other, and viewers at the Capitol sponsor their favorite tributes (sponsors can send their tributes useful gifts, like food or medicine) and bet on who will win.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss lives in one of the worst districts, District 12. Just getting enough food on her family's table requires that she enter herself for more and more chances to be part of the Hunger Games. The illegal poaching she does with Gale (sort of a friend, if Katniss can be said to have friends) helps somewhat, but it's not always enough.
When the time comes for the Hunger Games lottery, Katniss is relieved when her name is once again not drawn - but that relief doesn't last long. Despite only having one entry in the lottery, Prim, Katniss' sister, is chosen to be part of the Hunger Games. Knowing that Prim couldn't possibly survive, and unable to bear the thought, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Then the male tribute chosen turns out to be Peeta. Katniss doesn't know Peeta well, but she remembers him as the boy who gave her bread when she and her family were starving. She doesn't want to have to kill him, but she doesn't want to die, either.
This book took me a lot longer to read than it should have. I read the first three quarters or so very quickly, carried on by a need to know what was going to happen, who was going to survive, and how they were going to manage it. The closer I got to the end, however, the harder it was for me to continue reading. I spent some time thinking about why this was, and I think I now have the answer, although Hunger Games fans may “boo” me for it: I started to hate Katniss.
As a Hunger Games tribute, Katniss is pretty much perfect. She may not be much of a fighter, but her hunting skills transfer nicely into the Hunger Games environment. She can be ruthless, but she is still able to trust others enough to form alliances, like she did with Rue (although that was at least partially due to the similarities Katniss saw between Rue and Prim). After the death of one particular tribute, I mourned with Katniss as she arranged flowers over the body. The scene where the dead tribute's district sent bread to Katniss was wonderful. Yes, Collins was manipulating readers' emotions. Yes, it worked like a charm on me.
The problem, for me, came when Katniss was reunited with Peeta. Katniss persisted in thinking that Peeta was faking his feelings for her. Under the direction of Haymitch (a past Hunger Games winner from District 12), Katniss faked her feelings for Peeta to drum up audience sympathy and stellar sponsor support. She started to suspect that maybe, just maybe, Peeta was being completely honest about his feelings and really did love her, and the feelings she was faking started to become a bit more real. Since every moment of the Hunger Games is monitored, and since survival is of paramount importance, Katniss didn't really have time to examine her feelings for Peeta, figure out her feelings for Gale (who knows what he was thinking, watching every partially manufactured tender moment between Katniss and Peeta?), or even talk to Peeta about how much her feelings confused her. Talking to Peeta would have meant revealing that her side of this romance, at least, was not completely natural. If the audience found out, if Peeta could no longer react the way he was supposed to, both of them might have lost audience and sponsor support. Without that support, they probably would have died.
While I understood all of that, I couldn't help but hate Katniss for what she was doing. Since Haymitch obviously wasn't having to coach Peeta on the proper way to fake romantic feelings, either Peeta was a phenomenally gifted actor whose instincts about how to get through the Hunger Games were spot on, or he wasn't faking those feelings. Since I was pretty sure that Peeta really did love Katniss (it'd be hard to fake anything while delirious from a horrible infection), I had to grit my teeth every time Katniss struggled to think of the best way to demonstrate that she felt something in return. When she realized that a kiss equaled a gift of food from Haymitch, and when she acted on that realization, I wanted to scream at her. Yes, I know, she had to do it to ensure they both survived. That knowledge didn't make any of it easier to read.
In the Peeta vs. Gale debate, my vote is currently for Gale. As individuals, I liked Peeta better than Gale, even though Peeta's apparent desire for a sweet, flowery romance was painfully naive. So, why would I rather Katniss ended up with Gale than Peeta? Gale hasn't shown up much yet, but, from all appearances, he's as practical and ruthless as Katniss. Maybe more so, seeing as how he was willing to abandon the siblings who depended upon him in order to run away with Katniss and hopefully live a better life. I think being around Peeta more might smooth some of Katniss' rough edges, but I also think the reverse would be true – being around Katniss would give Peeta more rough edges. Considering how horrible their world can be, maybe this would be good for Peeta, but I'm not sure I'd want that for him, and I'm not sure if it would be good for Katniss to become less ruthless.
This first book in the trilogy ends right after the Hunger Games. One of the moments I dreaded has happened: Peeta learned that Katniss was faking her lovey-dovey actions. Another moment I'm dreading, but that hasn't happened yet: Gale's reaction to Katniss when he sees her again for the first time. Whether he knew that she was faking her romance with Peeta or not, I doubt Gale will be happy with Katniss. I also doubt Gale and Peeta will manage to be civil towards one another. There is relationship angst galore in Katniss' future.
This relationship angst is why I'll probably delay reading the next book. I can't stand the amount of unhappiness that love triangles like this generate. That said, I do expect to read the next book at some point. Katniss and Peeta, as the newest winners of the Hunger Games, will be made to visit all the districts, and I'd love to learn more about each of them. Also, I'm looking forward to reading about the full-blown rebellion that I suspect will appear at some point. I'm still wondering about the girl who gave Katniss the mockingjay pin. Why did she give it to Katniss? Is it one of the first signs of rebellion, and is that girl a part of that rebellion?
Overall, I found this world to be an interesting one, and I did like most of the book. I think I'm just not as fond of love triangles as I used to be. The voyeuristic feeling while reading about Peeta and Katniss' developing “romance” wasn't that much fun for me, either. If anything was going to develop between the two of them, I would rather have had it develop naturally, but instead the audience was always there. Peeta may not have been thinking about them, but there was rarely a moment when Katniss wasn't thinking about them and wondering how best to act in front of them.
UPDATE: Sorry, I realized I misspelled Haymitch's name every single time. I think fixed it all. What can I say, I tended to read his name as "Hamish," and that bled over into this review.
- Uglies (book) by Scott Westerfeld - This is the first book in Westerfeld's YA dystopian trilogy (or quartet, if you count Extras). In the world of Uglies, everyone starts out as an Ugly (a person whose looks have not been surgically enhanced) and later is turned into a Pretty. Tally, the main character of the trilogy, looks forward to becoming a Pretty, but what will she do when she is told that she can only become one if she first betrays Shay, her best friend, and the rebels Shay has decided to join? Those who'd like more fast-paced YA dystopian fiction with a bit of romance may want to try this.
- Enclave (book) by Ann Aguirre - I haven't yet read this one, although it's on my TBR list. In the world of this book, you win the right to have a name if you survive your first 15 years. After that point, you are trained to be part of one of three groups: Breeders, Builders, or Hunters. Deuce wants to be a Huntress, a job that would require her to bring back meat to the group, while at the same time evading the monsters known as Freaks. This sounds like it might be another good one for those who'd like a story with a kick-butt heroine, action, and a bit of romance.
- Divergent (book) by Veronica Roth - Another one I haven't yet read. In the world of this book, everybody is part of a faction that determines their path for the rest of their life: Abnegation (service), Candor (truth), Erudite (intellect), Amity (friendship), and Dauntless (fearlessness). On your sixteenth birthday, you are allowed to choose to be part of a faction different from the one you were born into. Beatrice must choose which faction she best belongs to, but this choice is made harder when she learns that she is a Divergent, someone who may not be able to fit into any of the five factions. Those who'd like more YA dystopian fiction with action and a bit of romance might want to try this. The factions remind me a bit of Collins' districts, each of which produce different commodities.