There is likely nothing less dignified than a 22 year old college grad geeking out over the new hot YA novel of the year. But as a longtime Harry Potter fan, I’m not one for holding back where geeking is due. And it certainly is when one stands to consider Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a fascinating contribution to both the YA and sci-fi genres.
We have all heard the hype, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, or have managed to keep yourself blissfully unaware of the Tumblr-verse (good for you, really), you have no doubt seen the fanfic, fan art, and fan-just-about-everything-else swarming the interwebs these days. I can also attest to already being tainted by the insane amount of press and hype Hollywood has started over the upcoming movie version of Games. By the time I was 30 pages into the book, I already had the images of Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Miley Cyrus’ boyfriend pretty firmly set in my mind.
Gone are the days of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Absent too are the (amusingly odious) Edward, Bella, and Jacob of recent memory. In this new world, we are introduced to Katniss, Gale, and Peeta (I am not joking. You get used to the names eventually.) These three have no magical overlord to defeat; no mythical world to contend with in order to Prove Their Love (though there is a ton of romantic tension; we’ll come back to that.) What these three must do is participate in the daily grind of a near-totalitarian regime, and eventually two will go on to compete in the horrific (and admittedly fascinating) Gladiator-like Hunger Games.
We have dystopia! Starving families, not-so-subtle class tensions, and general silence on the subject of The Capitol’s cruelty. We also have action! Katniss is a trained hunter who spends much of her days poaching in the forbidden woods to feed her family. With her is Gale, a seemingly nice guy, strong, older, cute blah blah blah… Once the Games start we also meet Peeta, a baker’s son from the same District as Katniss and Gale. He seems genuinely funny and interesting, but there’s just one problem: he and Katniss, and every other “tribute” for that matter, are about to start a fight to the death.
The novel starts out strong for me, and I really appreciate all the detail Collins builds in about everyday life in the Districts. Once Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capitol to start training for the Games, the description and detail only get better and more varied. The tension between our teenage protagonists is set up pretty early, and as the Games progress it comes out further into the open, slightly shifting into romantic territory. Now, I get the need for some romantic subplot action, because hey, teenage girls don’t read shit that doesn’t include a little flirtation and witty romantic banter, amiright? (Please note the sarcasm.) But Katniss is pretty awesome—clever, fast, not to mention a great homemaker—so hey, girlfriend can’t help it if her milkshake (and mad archery skills) bring the boys to the yard. She’s pretty tough, and seemingly unaware of her “feminine wiles,” as it were. This is probably to her advantage, as a scheming flirty feminine protagonist would probably have gotten under my skin in a major way.
She is also, however, unaware of the puppy eyes Peeta is always making at her; now here’s where things get all “fan-girly” on my part. Authors are always setting up loooove triangles (see above examples), and don’t get me wrong—they can be incredibly effective. Boy loves girl, Other boy loves girl, Girl is weirdly ignorant about said feelings, including her own attachment to both Boys. As I said before Katniss is great, and mostly an awesome role model on how to Be Yourself (our author has to give us Life Lessons, right?) But Collins sets her up to lose major points in the eyes of the reader with her waffling on the Peeta-Gale issue. Things are clearly lopsided, as we only read about Gale for about 35 pages and then spend the rest of the 374 watching Katniss and Peeta try to avoid savagely murdering each other and build a friendship. Perhaps Catching Fire, the next in the trilogy, will build up some support for Gale—as it stands however, I have a feeling I’ll always be rooting for Peeta.
And this is probably the worst quality of the novel. At some point the strength, integrity, and even vulnerability and fear of our young female protagonist is pushed to the side to make way for the one Important Task: choosing the Better Boy. Part of the problem: there is no better flipping boy! Both dudes are great—kind, supportive, and general cool with the fact that this girl is an ass-kicker. So setting up the idea that one of these two balanced and well-tempered gents is somehow better or more right for Katniss is absurd.
My other problem is sidetracking the importance of our girl’s motive, character, and moral duties in order to highlight her fucking love life. Girl’s got people to kill! A family at home to protect! And probably, a bit of emotional (and physical) growing to do. And yet half way through we are all wondering if she’ll ditch Peeta for Gale, or if she and the baker’s son can life Happily Ever After. (Dudes, this is a dystopia. People rarely get to be happy, but sometimes they do get to survive.)
The love triangle does work to further the action, and even as a self proclaimed feminist and man-hater (joking), I do find myself drawn into this plot. Collins does a lot for young female characters here, and I’d probably be Katniss’ friend in real life, if she’d let me. I just wish the ass-kicking and fighting-the-system could take place without being cheapened by a conventional love problem. But perhaps this says more about where we are as a society than it does about the author herself (gotta please the crowds, huh?).
So listen, I do want to keep Katniss a stoic and lone female. I hope she gets over her angst and confusion over these two dudes. Really, I kinda wish she’d been a lesbian so none of this would have happened. But I still love the book, and if I’m really honest I think I’ve been Team Peeta from the beginning. I’m just hoping he doesn’t turn out to have fangs.