What if the television show "Survivor" was a fight to the death rather than a contest for a million dollars? That's, more or less, the premise of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Aptly described by Publisher's Weekly as part Death Race 2000, "The Hunger Games" is set in a dystopian future in which the United States has been divided into twelve districts and each year two tributes, between the ages of 12 and 18, are required to participate in the Hunger Games and all the contestants are thrown in an arena and required to fight to the death. The games are essentially a demonstration of the control the Capitol exerts over the twelve districts as every citizen is requires by law to watch the games unfold on live television.
Katniss is a seventeen-year old from District twelve who has been taking care of her sister and mother since she was child. So when her sister's name is picked as the female tribute to be sent to the Hunger Games, Kantiss doesn't hesitate to take her place. But being from a poor district, she's at a distinct disadvantage against the well-trained, well-fed tributes who train their whole lives for the games. And it isn't just the games Kantiss has to worry about. The male tribute being sent to the Capitol with her is a boy from her childhood that she feels indebted to, and he seems to show feelings for her as well. But Kantiss doesn't know whether the affection he is showing is all part of a plan to soften her resolve to fight to be the lone survivor of The Hunger Games.
"The Hunger Games" has been a huge success for Suzanne Collins, even being optioned by Lion's Gate films, and somehow I had never heard of it until a friend mentioned the title to me. YA titles just don't end up on my radar that often but the premise of this one was intriguing enough that I grabbed a copy--and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Suzanne Collins does pretty much everything right in this book. It would be so easy to overdo the action with this premise but Collins really understands pacing and never overwhelms the reader with pointless activity. And, truth to tell, the real story isn't about the games as much as it is about the society that inflicts the games on its citizens. The games came into being after a citizen uprising fractured the country into thirteen districts-- with only twelve of those left standing-- and they exist to remind the citizens they are completely at the mercy of the Capitol. Each tribute is tested and scored so that they may be eligible for sponsorship in the games. Essentially they are a kind of modern gladiator games in which each competitor is marketed to the best advantage for ratings. And given the still-rabid fascination so many people have with reality-television, the story here isn't all that far-fetched.
Kantiss isn't a particularly charismatic lead character, her life hasn't been easy enough for her to worry about trivialities. So putting on a public persona to attract sponsors is a huge hurdle for her and she is increasingly drawn into the bigger game of manipulating the audience. And as time goes on, she has a hard time separating her own feelings from the performance she is forced to give for the benefit of nationwide following. Collins touches on so many themes, from overwhelming government control to cynical media exploitation, and does it all very well. Because it's young adult fiction, the violence is never graphic and the author also walks that line with precision. She somehow even manages to draw an emotional response from the reader without repeatedly going down the cheap, manipulative route that would be so easy with characters that have to die. I was very, very impressed with "The Hunger Games" and would much rather spend my time with this series than with anything from the "Twilight" universe. I've already got a copy of Catching Fire ordered and on its way.