An Audio-Book Review: And May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor?


The Hunger Games Series

The Hunger Games

Catching Fire


By Suzanne Collins

Unabridged recording published by Scholastic Audio Books

Read by Carolyn McCormick


The Books:

Why are young adult books so darned serious? Harry Potter got so dark as to blot out the stars especially as the series reached its conclusion. Even Terry Pratchett’s young adult novels (the Johnny Maxwell and the Tiffany Aching stories for example) were far more serious than his other works. And this series? It makes me very happy I never actually read such stories when I was in my teens. No I went straight to the hard stuff so having a sense of humor was allowable. I didn’t even read the Heinlein juveniles until I was in graduate school.  Well, The Hunger Games Series makes those others all sunshine, candy canes and invisible singing elves by comparison.

Before I go on, I need you to know I hate dystopias. I mean I really hate dystopias. The whole concept that you need a world that is a living nightmare in order to write a story generally leaves me cold. Yes, sometimes bad things happen to good people and all stories need some sort of tension to be resolved, but a whole world that is rotten to the core strikes me as unrealistic as a story set in Lollipop Rainbowland where the flying unicorn ponies play. Sorry, that is just my take.

That said, I have to admit that I enjoyed The Hunger Games and that enjoyment led me to listen to Catching Fire and Mockingjay as well. It was interestingly written and the young protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, was the sort of hero I like; strongly self-reliant and able to react when others might just stand there uncertainly.

The Hunger Games takes place in in a post-apocalyptic future where Most of North America has been destroyed and, from its ashes, arose the nation of Panem. Now, I thought it obvious that Panem was an abbreviation for Pan-America, but later in the series, Ms Collins tells us it’s Latin for “Bread” which makes somewhat less sense. Perhaps she thought it was a clever pun, but it was at that point I began to question the quality of the series as a whole… but let us get back to the first book (which I really liked).

So after the great apocalypse, whatever it was (nuclear war? plague? zombies?) Panem grew with a capital and thirteen surrounding districts, each district devote, it seems, to a single industry (sounds a bit limited, but I was willing to suspend disbelief… It might seem otherwise, but I do not normally try to pick nits with everything I read or listen to). I suppose everything was going well for a while, but perhaps the new nation of Panem was poorly conceived from the start because eventually all thirteen districts rebelled against the Capital. Somehow the Capital won the revolution, destroyed District Thirteen to make an example, and oppressed the people of the remaining twelve Districts (or at least that is we are told in Book 1)

The result was that the people of the Districts are allowed a bare subsistence, generally not allowed to use their own resources, while the people of the Capital live in decadent luxury. Furthermore, as an object lesson to the people of the Districts two young adults, one boy and one girl aged twelve to eighteen, are chosen by lot each year to fight to the death in a specially constructed arena for the enjoyment of the Capital and the punishment of the Districts. The chosen are called “Tributes” and the contests are the Hunger Games.

Katniss lives in a district that is apparently entirely devoted to coal mining. Nobody seems to grow anything there at least we do not hear much of kitchen gardens, although perhaps there are a few here and there since her sister has a goat from whose milk she makes cheese. The woods surrounding the  mining town that is sum of District Twelve are  evidently full of game, but the people are not allowed to hunt, although Katniss and a friend do poach in the woods frequently and thereby supplement their incomes and diets.

In the annual Reaping , the lottery by which Tributes to the title Hunger Games are chosen, Katniss’ younger sister Prim is chosen and to everyone’s surprise, even her own perhaps, Katniss volunteers to go in Prim’s place. And finally the story begins… One more twist, the boy who once gave Katniss some bread from his parents’ bakery (Peeta – is this another bread pun?), thereby saving the lives of Katniss and her family, is chosen as well

Spoilers ahead, but they should be obvious ones. So Katniss and Peeta go to the Capital where they are groomed and not-quite-readied for the Hunger Games. In an interview Peeta admits to having a crush on Katniss which she thinks is just a ploy, possibly to weaken her defenses against him (but I doubt any readers are fooled into thinking it is not a genuine protestation of love). Their mentor (Haymitch) advises them to go with that and be “starcrossed lovers” for the fans of the Games (at this point I like to add the catch phrase “…and hilarity ensues.”)

I’ll skip the details, there are a lot of them, including a very touching scene at the death of Rue, a girl from District Eleven with whom Katniss was allied briefly and just mention that in mid-game the rules change to allow two victors if they both come from the same District, then once both Katniss and Peeta are the final tributes, the rules change again, so rather than fight each other they decide to commit suicide, although Katniss’ “Trust me,” to Peeta reveals it as a calculated ploy. The ploy works, however, the Capital must have a victor to display and two are better than none. The two are told that the Capital is not pleased with them and they must continue pretending to be lovers and so they return home, end of Book 1 with Katniss ambivalent about her relationship with Peeta and one she had blooming with her old hunting buddy, Gayle.

That’s Book 1 of the Series and I thought it was pretty good and that is saying something considering that I do not like dystopian stories and found this particular world both an extreme dystopia and two dimensionally unbelievable. What was the original disaster? Are there no people in the rest of the world? Panem is a very depopulated North America (possibly with an inland sea from rising ocean levels?). Is there no one left on any of the other six continents? While the Districts are kept in relative squalor, the Capital obviously enjoys a highly technological lifestyle.

I kept thinking about Witfogel’s Hydraulic Theory which states that a nation that controls all the water, controls the people and that it can never be conquered from within. However, Witfogel’s theory has been discredited on many fronts. There is a grain of truth in there, but it is still only a matter of time. Panem is too extreme, too depopulated to have held on to its technological base. That is nit-picking, though.

Catching Fire starts up a few months later with Katniss and Peeta pretty much estranged once more, unless there are cameras on them and now it is time for their “Victory Tour” of the Districts and the Capital. President Snow, the dictatorial leader of Panem comes to threaten Katniss just before the tour and I thought, “Well, that was stupid.” Here she was, prepared to go around pretending for the cameras and then he  was enough of a jerk to give her a reason to fully hate him and everything the Capital stood for. But by now Katniss has lost much of her heroic stature and his threats actually work and she tries to behave.

Unfortunately, her behavior during the Hunger Games has made her a hero in some of the districts and a display of mild civil disobedience in District Eleven is met with murderous oppression by the Capital’s Peacekeepers. Another very stupid move. That particular demonstration was peaceful. Cracking down on it caused a riot, but the tour goes on (and is all too quickly over – I expected this to be a journey of discovery for Katniss, but apparently she learns very little) and uprisings occur in Katniss’ and Peeta’s wake… And then comes the announcement: in a very special Seventy-fifth Hunger Games, all tributes will come from the ranks of previous victors.

Still more Spoilers: So Katniss and Peeta are back in the Arena… well, actually a new arena since each games gets a new arena thus proving that there are not many people in Panem since each arena is kept as a museum and a park after the games and they are all fairly large. This time no one wins. Instead, through a combination of intense cleverness on some tributes’ part and dumb luck on Katniss’ the area is partially destroyed and some of the tributes escape with the help of rebels and the military of District Thirteen. End of Book 2.

I really hated Book 3, Mockingjay. And that is too bad because until the sloppy, cliff-hanger ending of Catching Fire I could still forgive the flaws of the series. But in Mockingjay, Katniss completes her fall from hero to stooge and victim. In this book she is manipulated by everyone and used as a rather pathetic symbol of the revolution, a character called, the Mockingjay.  By this point she is just a pawn being used by the President of District Thirteen who eventually tries to set up conditions so that Katniss will die as a martyr to the cause. That she does not is only due to the sacrifice of those around her and the closest thing she does to an heroic action is to assassinate the President of Thirteen when she is supposed to be executing President Snow instead.

Katniss’ character has devolved by this point as well. I know this story was written for teens, but Katiniss may as well hang up her hat and go hang out with a certain bunch of angsty, sparkling vampires. She’ll fit right in. This is not what I look for in a hero, but by the third book she is no longer a hero, merely a protagonist.

When I was in college, antiheros were very fashionable.  Almost everything I read featured an antihero of one sort or another. Katniss does not even rate as an antihero, unfortunately, she is totally aheroic, just a ragdoll tossed back and forth by those in power and she eventually collapses into herself and never really recovers. In spite of the Epilogue I fully believe that her recovery is as fragile as that of her mother’s after the death of Katniss’ father. I am sure she has many relapses, and she mainly just goes wherever the others around her push her. Sad really and not the sort of character I would want to hold up as a model to others.

Is Katniss’ reaction to all the horrendous things that happen to her realistic? Oh sure, yes, but we expect more from our heroes. We expect them to overcome the adversity that would crush any normal person and somehow persevere. All Katniss does is continue to breath, and that in spite of her failed attempts at suicide. Sorry, no. Not working for me. She started out as a strong and independent character and is crushed into a totally dependent weakling. Yuck.

So… I fully recommend reading the first book. If that really excites you go on to the second. Unless you like wallowing in despondent self-pity, though, avoid Book Three!

The Audiobooks:

In spite of the problems I had with the later books of the series Carolyn McCormick reads them well. Her voice is easy to listen to and she reads in a no nonsense manner, highlighting the emotional scenes with just enough edge without going over the top. In fact I would go so far as to admit that it was her reading that got me to the end of the third book as I am fairly certain I would have given up on it by the end of the second chapter  had I actually been reading it instead of listening. Ms McCormick kept me from turning to the next book in my listening library. Well done!

So, to sum it all up. The series starts out strong with a very good first book with a strong first-person protagonist. Sadly the second book is a bit more of the same and there are chinks showing up in Katniss’ emotional armor as she starts to get a bit whiney, and by the third book the whole story falls apart for what I think is supposed to be the sake of realism. By all means read the first book. It is very good. After that? Well, read or listen on if you like, but don’t say I did not warn you.

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2 Responses to An Audio-Book Review: And May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor?

  1. Susie Schroeder says:

    Jon, I generally disllke dystopias also, except for Blade Runner, for some reason. When I was a kid somebody gave me a copy of the first Lemony Snickett, and I hated it, as well as the Goosebumps series. I read Nancy Drew and liked that, and loved Podkayne of Mars. Now as an adult, I really disliked the first volume of A Game of Thrones, and that is pretty dystopic if you ask me. I think the reason I never got into Harry Potter is the veery unpleasant beginning to the first book. BTW, NF’s #2 son, Will, wouldn’t go to the last of the HP movies becuse in the penultimate one, Dumbledore was killed off.

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