Ah, the second book in a trilogy, notorious for the potential lull. But for me, this was the Empire Strikes Back of the series,* the episode I’ve watched more than all other episodes added together, the one that questions everything the heroes hold dear and keeps me on edge with the threat of failure, both emotional and physical.
The first book was the hero’s tale, classic hero monomyth of an ordinary youth surmounting incredible challenges (hello, Luke), and winning power which is used to benefit the ones they love. It was a satisfying if somewhat surface fairy-tale triumphant. But after a quick recap, Collins takes off the gloves and shows the layers of dirt and grime under the myth, the consequences of winning, by tossing our poor hero into the thick of politics and a conflict based on issues she doesn’t even understand.
Plot summary: I won’t. Wait, I will, because if I don’t, I’m going to get this and the next confused, because I’m that old. And because I borrowed these books from Elizabeth’s niece, and presumably I have to give them back. (And because, quite honestly, they don’t hit quite hit that “I-must-own” sweet spot). (Spoiler follows) [Katniss is back in District 12, biding time until the victory tour starts, hunting for Gale’s family, avoiding Peeta and trying to pretend the games didn’t exist. President Snow pays a visit to her home for tea and threats, and is there anything creepier than old plastic-surgerified white guys who smell like roses and blood? Unfortunately, the tour stops in Rue’s district, and Katniss’ memorial triggers an event that will reverberate through the city. The tour returns to home and Katniss considers her options, spurred on by a change in the local Peacekeepers, several discussions with Gale and a pair of women fleeing their district. Uprisings are continuing, and when her team arrives for prep, Katniss learns of various food and supply shortages. The announcement of the Quarter Quell traps her, leading her to focus on keeping Peeta alive. ]
Characterization starts to gain subtlety. Gale and his family are used for opening background, recreating the setting of District 12 and giving readers more insight into Katniss’ upbringing. Haymitch and Buttercup continue to intrigue with the irascible, scratchy exteriors that you just know hide melty, gooey centers. Katniss? Like Luke, she’s a bit of a self-centered twit who needs to build the emotional and political savvy to deal with the elevation in status. In an effort to assume adult roles, they take emotional responsibility for the people around them, believing martyrdom will result in the greatest good. While it’s a little tiresome, eventually there is enough action to move the story out of navel-gazing and into the dual games of the Capitol, the psychological and the physical ones. Katniss begins the story by weighing the value of protecting family and loved ones against identity and Peeta’s emotions in a futile effort of appeasement. She quickly learns she will not be successful no matter what action she takes. Her political awakening feels real to me, moving from the selfish to the realization that most people are only pawns in the larger game. I loved Peeta’s comment at the banquet, echoing the realization of everyone who just tries to get along: “‘You go along, thinking you can deal with it, thinking maybe they’re not so bad, and then you–” He cuts himself off.”
In many ways, this book echoed the path of The Hunger Games; the opening scenes in the district, the trip to the city, physical transformations, (spoiler follows) [the Games.] Collins avoids plot repetition by delving into the darker, emotional and manipulative actions that accompany change and revolution. I can understand why so many fans felt the series peaked with the first book, as it is an uncomfortable ride, both because the narrator is struggling with what it means to be ‘responsible,’ and because there is very little joy for contrast. I found that I liked it better than the first book, although I’m not sure I would read it again. (Peeta isn’t Han, after all).
* Dan’s review provided my launching point.