Friday, December 2, 2011

CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is a 2009 young-adult science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins, and the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Here, the events of the first novel have stirred up unrest in the Districts, and the totalitarian Capitol threatens nearly everyone Katniss knows with death.

The Hunger Games was a page-turning affair; Catching Fire is too, mostly. Collins has a lot of creative ideas here, many of which work well, especially in the middle third of the book. It’s notably impressive that she can keep a second Hunger Games event reasonably fresh, although its abbreviated length certainly helps.

And yet here also Katniss spends page after page mentally whining, absorbed in her own problems, feeling sorry about her situation (that she’s moping about her loved ones’ fates rather than her own doesn’t make it less tiresome). Katniss is also painfully slow on the uptake throughout the book, and is often a hindrance to other people who are trying to get things accomplished. For numerous reasons, she just isn’t as sympathetic here as she was in the first book.

The real star of Catching Fire is the supporting cast. Whereas Katniss is usually content to take a blunt-instrument approach to her plight, many of the other characters are crafty, creative, and noble, and the reader roots for them. It’s too bad the first-person narrative restricts the book to Katniss’s perspective, because a great deal of what they’re up to is quite a bit more interesting than much of what Katniss has going on.

Collins’ writing feels somewhat less solid here than in the first book. The story itself is fine, but Collins at times seems more interested in setting up the third book than telling this book’s story. Much of the key action in the book is given in summary. The ending is a particularly glaring example, where the reader is given a glossed-over page of twists and revelations without even a proper scene. Additionally, the love triangle featuring two upstanding, devoted young men who don’t care how annoying the girl can be is boilerplate for female-fronted young-adult fiction.

For all the setup of the first book, Collins still doesn’t have anything interesting to say on any of her issues. She still hammers the totalitarian-government-is-bad point, but that government and its leader are never more than one-dimensional villains. Collins again ignores the moral issues of the Hunger Games; indeed, Katniss, who hopes that somebody else kills the people she likes so she won’t have to, is nearly all hardened killer here. (The seeds are here to make a point about fighting evil with evil, but Collins doesn’t seem the slightest bit inclined in that direction.)

Catching Fire is a page-turner. But because of its flaws, it feels shallow, and a page-turner is about all it is. Ultimately, that’s just enough to make it worthwhile.