The Hunger Games Book 1
Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts
This is one I’ve heard about a lot, though apart from the basic premise I had somehow manage to get to it without major spoilers. Result! The premise: each year, a boy and a girl from each District are selected by lot to fight to the death in the arena, for the entertainment viewing of the masses. Of twenty-four children, only the winner is allowed to live.
Katniss is an extraordinary heroine. At sixteen, she lives in great poverty and is the protector and food-gatherer for her family. When her beloved little sister Prim is called up to the Hunger Games, Katniss does not hesitate to take her place. Joining her is Peeta, the son of the local baker, a boy who once showed kindness to Katniss when she was starving. The two of them go through the pre-preparations in the Capitol, all the while knowing that they will soon have to fight not only the other contestants, but also each other.
If she is going to survive, Katniss has to be ruthless, she has to be smart, and she has to be very careful who she trusts.
The tagline on this edition of the book is “strategy is everything”, and it’s this that really lifts the book into being a truly great story. Step by step, we follow Katniss into darkness, through thirst and starvation and the quite brutal reality of what she has to do. The combination of reality television with gladiatorial/deadly combat is hardly a new concept in science fiction – indeed, it was around long before reality television itself was established – and yet this feels fresh and authentic, with a cast of characters who are drawn vividly even when they only make brief appearances in the narrative.
As well as being a great example of YA dystopian fiction, The Hunger Games also fits into the tradition of science fiction about young people (usually young men) going to war. I was reminded of Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers in the way it deals with the theme of teenage soldiers, which is effectively what the “tributes” are. There are also some strong class themes here, as we are shown that this world which endorses such a cruel practice is also built on the backs of its workers, and has no facility for caring for those who cannot work. District 12, which produced Katniss and Peeta, is the least privileged of the districts, revolving as it does around the dangerous mine work which often leaves families fatherless. The big difference between Katniss and Peeta is one of class – while they both come from the poorest sector, he has never actually gone hungry, and both his parents are living, which means there seems to be a softness to him that contrasts with her hardness. This carries through the whole book, as they make different choices and react to situations differently based on that essential difference.
We learn that the richer districts have “career” tributes, who are trained to be vicious enough to win in the arena, while the poorer ones have to send along whoever is picked. The game is set up to benefit thoughtful, strategic tributes, though, and this is where Katniss comes into her own. It’s her very awareness of the game and how it works that is most compelling about the story – just being a good killer isn’t enough, you have to be entertaining with it. The more entertainment you provide to the viewers, the more likely you are to collect sponsors who will aid you in key ways, by providing medicine, weapons or other supplies. And of course, if a day goes by without any interesting deaths, then the game itself turns against the tributes, throwing calculated challenges or threats in to endanger them, or force them into the open.
Hunger is a theme never far from the surface. While it’s never explained why the Hunger Games are named so, it’s easy to guess why. The tributes are put into a specially-designed terrain where finding water and food is as important a part of the game as being prepared to fight and kill each other – survival in all senses of the word. While on the surface you can look at this world and ask how any society would allow this kind of atrocity to go on in the name of entertainment, it’s also a reminder that the Hunger Games are in fact only one (utterly immoral) step away from the reality tv that has become so entrenched in our culture over the last decade. Not only shows such as Survivor which are calculated to push people to the absolute limit, but children’s versions of the same! Katniss is constantly thinking about food, because she has grown up in a world where she only eats if she hunts or gathers the food herself. The contrasts between the hard-won meals at home, the importance of bread and Peeta’s family bakery, with the rich, privileged food of the Capitol, brings this home to us long before we see her back in the wild, surrounded not only by physical dangers from her fellow tributes, but also trying to keep her body alive and healthy.
I did spend a bit of this pacy read wondering where the next two novels were going to come from – how, if there is only one Hunger Games, could there be two sequels? I’m left not quite the wiser at the end of this one – I can see why the author wanted to continue the story, as the climax is huge and there obviously have to be ramifications, but I don’t yet see how she’s going to do it. Which is why I want book 2 NOW.
For those people who have been wondering why there isn’t any science fiction in amongst all that super popular YA fantasy? It’s right here. The Hunger Games explores all manner of science fiction themes, in a technologically advanced world, and teams these science fictional ideas with one hell of an emotional punch. This is YA at its best – a unique female lead character, a host of other interesting characters, incredible challenges that see the character pushed to her physical and emotional limit, and intimately high stakes from beginning to end. The romance is integral to the story, but only one plot thread among many. For Katniss at least, romance is far less important than staying alive, and her methodical, survivalist mind categorises it as just another event made up of strategy and action. I can see why these books have become the new must-read teen sensation, and the fact that it is an intelligent, challenging novel about a scary dystopian future instead of sexy vampire lurve is to the credit of those teens. Yay for smart books!