Yet again, I’ve got my daughter to thank.
It was on her recommendation back in January that I picked up — and plowed through — Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire, which means I now owe her for the experience of reading the trilogy-concluding Mockingjay, just released at the end of August. (For the record: Kelsey got first crack at the book on the day it arrived, but I stayed up late that night reading pretty much the whole thing in one sitting.)
A warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but starting with the next paragraph our thoughts on the third book are likely to give away a few big pieces of the first two, so if you haven’t read them, you may want to click that “back” button on your browser now, or do a quick-scroll down to the next GeekDad piece.
With Mockingjay, Collins returns to the country of Panem — in which a ruthless Capitol state forces the children of its outlying districts to compete in annual battles to the death — and her story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage hero of those Hunger Games who has become the face of a nationwide rebellion.
When I started reading Mockingjay, I was taken back to the release of Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. In much the same way that the tone of that book’s opening third threw me off — what with Harry being cooped up and half the wizarding world calling him a liar and all — it took me a while to get used to the new world of Mockingjay. There are no more Games, no more Arena: Every district’s streets are the battlefield, and the ongoing war is violent and grinding and numbing. (Mockingjay remains a Young Adult book, just to be clear, though it is fittingly darker and more brutal than its predecessors, with some disturbing insight into the fates of some of the teenage combatants.)
I’d bet Collins takes some lumps for the tone, but I give her a ton of credit for not shying away from the jagged edges of humanity which science fiction has traditionally explored. There’s the psychological toll the Games and subsequent rebellion take on Katniss and her friends and family. There are the questions of what happens when the good guys consider acting like the bad guys and whether those ends justify the means. There are issues of politics and survival and vengeance versus justice.
There’s also the “love triangle” subplot between Katniss, her lifelong-friend-turned-hardened-rebel Gale Hawthorne, and Peeta Mellark, a former arena competitor who has never hesitated to put his life before hers. (Though this is an ongoing and key thread in Katniss’ story, Collins’ has never made it the story-driver: To write The Hunger Games saga off as a sci-fi-cloaked “girl who likes two boys” tale is to miss the point entirely.)
Kelsey loved the book and said it was “a really good way to wrap up the series,” (we both had very small quibbles with parts of it near the end) though she did admit that “it felt overly emphasized that Katniss was a pawn in the war.” That said, she enjoyed the expansion of the character roster to include former Hunger Games foes and seeing Katniss develop new friendships.
What Collins has achieved in Mockingjay is impressive: The pacing is different from the first two books, but it remains a page-turner, and there are more than a few excellent cliffhangers, creeping terror moments, and twists and genuine surprises. She balances harried action sequences with throat-lump good quiet sections and manages an awfully satisfying ending to the book and the trilogy.
She’s also managed to craft science fiction that’s incredibly readable and entertaining and thought-provoking to both kids and their parents — and that’s a victory to be celebrated.