So… I read a book ~ Mockingjay Review

10 Jan

(Caution – SPOILER ALERT!)

Like everyone else in the world, I bought the first book in the much-hyped Hunger Games series just to see what all the fuss was about. Not that I expected to enjoy it, of course. I expected to flick through, read the occasional paragraph and quietly titter to myself, and end by boomeranging the darned thing to the nearest thrift store, where it would take its place amongst at many Read-It-Once-And-Go-“Oh, so THAT’S whodunit!” Dan Brown books and the twelve vinyl copies of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album that I believe every US charity shop is now required by law to carry.

To my surprise (and initial annoyance), I thoroughly enjoyed it. Don’t tell anyone, but in fact I found myself so swept up by the cliffhanger ending of Book 1 that I rushed out and bought Books 2 and 3.

Okay, not rushed out exactly, but I did order them both discretely from Amazon (who promised they would come wrapped in plain brown paper to avoid embarrassing me in front of the neighbors). I spent a frustrated week jumping up and down in front of my mailbox as each day the books failed to arrive. When that innocently wrapped package finally landed on my doorstep, I’ll admit to reading the rest of the series in two weeks flat. I actually rationed the final book – a chapter a night – as I didn’t want the series to end.

I don’t often do things like that, I’ll have you understand. As a lifelong Fantasy fan I’ve spent the last few years peering warily over the top of my soapbox at J. K. Rowlings books, collecting an impressive array of Facebook comedy-postcards on the subject of Stephanie Meyer’s sparkling vampires, and playing “Anita Blake Bingo” by opening up any given Laurell K. Hamilton book at random and doing a shot if my finger wound up on a freaky supernatural-beastie sex scene (those games I played to lose).

So I was surprised when I actually enjoyed reading The Hunger Games. If you’re new to the world of Suzanne Collins, the basic premise of the series this: in a post-apocalyptic world, civilization as we know it has been destroyed (as it always is). All that remains of the nation is a single wealthy, technologically advanced Capitol surrounded by twelve poorer states called Districts. Citizens of the Capitol live in opulence whereas in the districts, workers are treated as slaves who endlessly toil to produce goods for the Capitol whilst slowly starving to death themselves.

mockingjay

Here’s the twist: echoing the ancient tale of the Labyrinth, where an angry Minotaur is fed a yearly tribute of seven youths and seven maidens, the wealthy Capitol demands a yearly sacrifice of one young girl and one young boy from each of the states, as punishment for an uprising against the Capitol in the now-destroyed thirteenth state. In an extreme spin on today’s reality TV shows, the twenty four children must fight to the death in a popular televised event called ‘the Hunger Games.’ The games continue until only one child remains as the victor.

Cue much waiting and gnashing of teeth from parents, educators and Moms Against Anything Remotely Nasty-Sounding upon the book’s publication. The massive publicity from this child-killing premise of course ensured worldwide Bestseller sales and the immediate six-figure purchase of the book series to be made into a movie trilogy.

Books one and two set up the premise very nicely, for the reader. In the first book we met the hero, Katniss Everdeen, your typical Buffy-style teen who supports her family by illegally killing game in the woods with her bow and arrow. She is set up with love-interest Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son who once saved Katniss’s family from starvation. Katniss and Peeta are chosen to fight to the death in The Hunger Games. Both survive and go on to lead the rebel forces of the opposition in Book 2, with Katniss (AKA the Girl On Fire) becoming a symbol for rebellion against the Capitol.

From the start I knew that there would be no happy ending to this tale, but to an extent, I was surprised to find that we actually got one at the ending of Book 3: the corrupt and greedy Capitol is overthrown, the Districts finally get their peacetime, Katniss gets Peeta, and Katniss’s star-crossed crush Gale along with Katniss’s mother and her training mentor Haymich get to live. It was no Star Wars ending, but it provided closure in a passably realistic way. Sure, we lose some of the characters that we’ve become invested in, but considering the many endings I can picture, it’s the best outcome for the characters that we could have hoped for.

Except it’s not satisfying for us, as readers. There is nothing wrong with the overall plot of the series, but rather, it was the execution of the plot in Book 3 that left many readers (including myself) feeling unsatisfied by what was basically a good strong ending. Why? Put simply, the final book in the series was rushed, to the point where I felt the plot and the characters lost all integrity.

Before I go on, let me say in Ms Collin’s defense that I understand why this novel may have been rushed onto the shelves. As a working author myself, I’ve spent many years happily filling up the Pulp Fiction bargain bin at your local airport. I will defend Collins to a certain point, because I am intimately familiar with that giggle-inducing point where you’ve been working on a book day and night for X months, your answer-phone and INBOX is full up with threatening messages from your editors, and you’ve read your own words over and over to the point where even the most basic sentences no longer seem to make any sense. Oh, and that week where you caught the flu and your cat pooped on your laptop, deleting most of the final chapter and every word beginning with ‘A’? That’s the week that the damn thing has to go to print.

Time is an author’s rarest and most precious commodity, and after the worldwide success of the first Hunger Games book, I’ll bet that what little free time Ms. Collins had to write simply evaporated. Having read most of the Amazon reviews of the series so far, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that most of the criticisms directed at this book and at the conclusion of Ms Collins’s series are due, in part, to the likely pressure the author was put under to write two follow-ups to a bestseller in quick succession.

That much said, I agree with most Amazon reviewer’s opinions about their disgust at our heroine Katniss changing from a cool female terminator armed with a bow and arrow in Book 1, to the frightened, self-hating and somewhat limp character who lets things happen to her and rolls with them all the way through Books 2 and 3.

Yes, her transformation from plucky survivor to shell-shocked war veteran was realistic. No, it was not satisfying to the reader because it happens too quickly, mid story, and you stop identifying with and rooting for our heroine – especially as she begins hating herself for the mounting body count which she (incorrectly) views as people who are dying “in her name.”

At a certain point you stop scolding her “Katniss, don’t you see that all these people died for freedom, not for you personally?” and start thinking “Okay, fine, go live under a rock – and grow some self esteem while you’re at it!”

My biggest criticism of Book 3 is that the author essentially runs out of ideas and turns our heroine Katniss into a videogame character, using the technology of the Capitol as a substitute for a constant supply of ‘Extra Lives.’ Ruptured your spleen? The Capitol can fix it. Hearing blown out by a bomb blast? Hey, there’s an App for that. Burned alive? Here’s some new skin, enjoy! Again and again Katniss sustains hideous injuries in increasingly violent battles, and each time she is magically plucked from the wreckage by her all-seeing, all-knowing Capitol babysitters, and wakes up in a hospital bed on her route to convalescence with a mint on her pillow and a kiss on the cheek from people whose friends and families she’s basically just slaughtered.

That’s not satisfying to the readers, who may be picturing themselves in her place. We want an identifiable hero who wins the war using her own pluck and unique personal resources. We don’t want to watch our heroine turned into a state puppet whose only function in winning the war is to smile and look pretty on TV and basically get in the way of all the actual soldiers who are trying to win the war.

The ‘Extra Lives’ are a plot device, I know, but to me it’s a device just degrades the character. I felt by the end of Book 3 that Katniss Everdeen was no better than Bella in the much-maligned Twilight series, constantly getting into fixes and being saved in the nick of time by outside forces beyond her control. Meanwhile, the reader who has loyally stuck by her side and watched her struggles to rescue her true love Peeta/ invade the Capitol/ Kill the evil President Snow only learns whether the mission was a success or a failure as an afterthought, like a news report, as Katniss wakes up time and again in a hospital bed after getting knocked out, and is told the outcome of her efforts by a random person.

We as readers want to LIVE that outcome, not be told about it.

I could go on about how the final ending was rushed (the assault on the Capitol); how characters who have been waiting for 3 books to get their Big Happy Ending are pushed to the sidelines or written off in one line (Finnick, Gale); the fact that the one character who was the original motivation for Katniss to start her journey is killed off as a one-line afterthought (little sister Prim).

Yet the one thing that finally killed this book series for me was that moment halfway through the final book when the character whose fate we’ve all been biting our nails over since Book 2 – Peeta – is unexpectedly rescued from the evil President Snow’s clutches early in the story. That was the biggest momentum killer in ‘Mockingjay.’ The thing Katniss has been longing for the most is basically given to her on a platter, and all the tension carefully built up in Book 2 is gone.

But worse than that, when he comes back, Peeta is not Peeta. He’s a mind-washed zombie who has been reprogrammed by the Capitol to hate Katniss. Sure, it’s very clever and most likely represents how real politics brain-wash our children, but doing this to the main love interest in a book at the very end of the story is nothing short of a disaster. The Peeta we all know and love is GONE.

When I read that, I literally put down the book I’d had glued to for the last week, walked away, and felt no interest or inclination to continue reading to see what else happened. The story was over halfway through the book. The handsome hero is basically a nut-job write-off who we no longer care about, Katniss can rest easy now that her boyfriend is safe, and the reader can relax and walk away from the book if she wished, figuring that with all their advanced technology, Katniss’s babysitters can get Peeta’s mind back somehow. Who cares if they get married and have kids and spend the rest of their lives hating each other (which they do at the end, by the way).

To sum up, the Girl On Fire fizzled out way too early, for me.

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2 Responses to “So… I read a book ~ Mockingjay Review”

  1. dee2henry January 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    I’m with you on this. I refused to get caught up in the hype but finally caved and read these last summer. Fortunately, I have a Kindle so I immediately got 2 & 3 after being quickly sucked in by book1. I felt pretty perplexed by my empty satisfaction at the end of this trilogy. I say empty because the ending was happy, but I was left feeling jipped at how easy it seemed. After all the hard fights & battle for freedom, suddenly it was just over. So I’m with you on this totally, Natasha.

    • elizabeth ann January 10, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

      Of course, we know that I am anti mainstream hype, so I haven’t read them at all… and now I’m kinda glad! I don’t think I’d be happy if there was all this build-up and then piffle, the reader is left empty. Bah! Not fun. I’m much happier getting an unhappy ending that leaves the reader fulfilled, ya know?

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