Bryan has written several best selling young adult fantasy books. You can read his interview HERE. This review is being used with his permission. He also has a review of the movie, which I will be posting soon.
The Hunger Games is a dystopian/science fiction novel targeted for young adult readers. Since the genre is the same as my daughter’s novel, and since it is so popular and highly acclaimed, I decided to read it while flying home from Singapore.
First, I will list some of the good qualities. The Hunger Games accomplished two important feats – it held my interest throughout and kept me thinking about the story and characters after I closed the book. This doesn’t often happen to me, so I consider this to be a strong quality. If a story can’t hold my interest, I simply don’t finish. I don’t have time to read a boring book.
The author developed the main character (Katniss) quite well. Her traits (with one exception) were clear and consistent. For the most part, she was likeable and easy to follow. I will get to the exception soon.
The level of action, for the most part, proceeded at a good pace with appropriate pauses for rest and reflection. The author used foreshadowing quite well, better than most.
Now I will list some negatives. The first I noticed was the use of present tense. I found it annoying and unnecessary. It constantly jerked me out of the story, and I never got used to it.
The author’s use of fragments in narrative was also annoying. I understand the need for fragments in dialog and interior monolog, but it is simply wrong in narrative. It is a gimmick that has become popular of late, and it doesn’t work. There were many times that a comma would have made a proper sentence, and the use of a period instead had no reasonable explanation. Every use jerked me out of the story, and such jarring is so easily avoidable.
For example (page 6 in my copy):
"In the autumn, a few brave souls sneak into the woods to harvest apples. But always in sight of the Meadow. Always close enough to run back to the safety of District 12 if trouble arises."
The second two "sentences" are not sentences at all. If the author had put commas after "apples" and "Meadow" instead of periods, the entire section would have been grammatically correct. There is no reason to use periods except for employing a gimmick that doesn't work.
This example also points out how the use of present tense has problems. "In the autumn" indicates a time that differs from the present, but the section is still written in the present tense, which doesn't make sense at all.
On another point, the author was inexplicably inconsistent with speaker tag placements—sometimes near the beginning of a dialog segment, sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the end. It was especially distracting when she placed a speaker tag at the end of a several-sentence paragraph, and I found that the speaker wasn’t who I thought it was. When the speaker isn’t obvious, it is always better to put the tag as near to the beginning of the spoken portion as possible. The other option is to identify the speaker with an action beat at the beginning. If the speaker is obvious, there is no need for a tag at all.
The author did a poor job with scene-setting descriptions. I am a minimalist with descriptions in my own work, but I strive to provide enough to set the scene. Ms. Collins describes almost nothing. I could rarely see the places at all, and there were plenty of places to set the scenes unobtrusively. The arena was barely visible. What did the hovercraft look like? The training facility? I didn’t realize the size of the cornucopia until they climbed onto it at the end. Practically nothing was described sufficiently.
***Caution, spoilers ahead
The author did a poor job with world building. The motivations for the games themselves were lacking. Sure, I understood the punishment and warning angle, but she didn’t provide any counterbalance to explain if the citizens debated refusal to cooperate. If they did, what was their reason for not rebelling? Annihilation was threatened, but it was an empty threat. They leaders couldn’t afford to annihilate everyone. Some of these issues lacked sufficient exploration. Also, many of the technology aspects had little to no explanation. Where did the silver parachutes originate? How could they be delivered without notice? How could they fall so precisely, like in the crook of the tree where Katniss slept? How could there be cameras wherever they went, no matter where they went, all without notice? Explaining some of these issues is a huge part of world building. These were a big part of the story, so I got the impression that the author had no idea how to explain them, or just didn’t want to bother. Also, if the technology was that advanced, why did they need a train to get to the training facility? Much of this felt like the author was simply pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
The romantic angle seemed very contrived. Although Katniss was a well-developed character for the most part, when it came to her relationship with Peeta, she became a shallow drone. With most of the story, she was smart and strong, but she was clueless when it came to understanding what Peeta was doing. I suppose that every reader in the world knew what Peeta was doing, but Katniss was too stupid to figure it out, which created a situation that ruined suspension of disbelief. Katniss was too smart most of the time to be that stupid regarding Peeta. I get the impression that the author just tossed the romance into the mix in order to titillate readers, especially the ridiculous kissing parts, but it doesn’t work at all. In fact, this is the biggest flaw in the story and makes me unable to recommend it to anyone. The romance was completely unnecessary to the point of being silly.
Another story flaw is the author’s decision to create a midstream rules change that allows for two winners from the same district. This really took the edge off the intensity, and it was a big letdown. Would Katniss have helped Peeta so willingly and so painstakingly if she still thought he might kill her? That would have been a fantastic idea to explore, but the rules change removed that tension. The threatened suicide that comes later would have been more powerful without the change and then the change back. The leaders would have still wanted a victor, and if Katniss and Peeta had selflessly refused to kill one another, their final decision would have had much greater impact.
The story is lacking any deep thematic element. It explores brutality and despotic rule, and there is some examination of selfishness versus sacrifice, but the author doesn’t seem to have enough of a moral compass to allow for a look at real selflessness. If she had avoided the rule change, she would have had a prime opportunity. The most redeeming element was how Katniss treated Rue, both in life and in death. Their teamwork was fun to read. Still, since Rue died, we don’t get to see how Katniss would have decided to treat her if it came time to have to kill her. The avoidance of this issue with Rue and with Peeta really hurt the thematic depth.
***End of spoilers
I mentioned some strong positives at the beginning of this review, but they are not enough to outweigh the big negatives. If the author could have removed just a few of the negatives, I probably could have recommended this book. As it stands, I don’t want to read the sequel. I think I will find some of the same big flaws, and they would probably be too annoying or disappointing to get through.
This could have been a great book. Unfortunately, it is mediocre to poor. I give it 2.5 stars out of 5.
Bryan's website is HERE