Sunday, February 02, 2014

Mockingjay, by Susanne Collins

This is the final book of the Hunger Games trilogy, and there is no mistaking that fact. Collins is so over this series that it's painfully obvious that she could barely be bothered to write this one.

To be fair, I don't have the writing and publication history at hand. I do have some vague recollection that after the first novel hit (and hit HUGE!) Collins went back and wrote two more novels, that were released very quickly in order to meet the demand for more of the story. Which is quite an achievement, and not something I feel that I could do, so Major Kudos to Ms. Collins. Seriously. Seriously bad ass, ma'am!

And I have to say that I admire many many parts of the trilogy, and this book in particular. I especially admire how she opened up the story from the very narrow focus of the first book, and how she took the idea of Hunger Games and recast it for this last book.

I just feel like the whole is kind of half-baked, as if it was rushed through production before it was fully thought through.

Quick synopsis:

In the first book, Collins establishes a post-war dystopian North America of indeterminate size. (Does Canada still exist? Mexico?) The Capitol of the nation of Panem has defeated the Districts, and compels them to send two tributes each year to the arena where they are forced to kill each other for the viewing entertainment of the Capitol. The classical Greek and Roman parallels are intentional.

Our Heroine, Katniss Everdean, is not chosen for the Games, her younger sister is. Katniss cannot bear to let this happen so she volunteers. The Capitol's fascination with the tributes leads to silly fashion shoots and chariot rides and the vapidity of celebrity culture up to the very evening before the Games, and then the tributes are released into a controlled location and forced to fight for their lives. Katniss manages to seem very powerful while not actually killing anybody. In the end, she and the other tribute from her District are the only ones left alive, and they both prepared to poison themselves with berries--which would leave no victors for the Games. The rules are changed for them, and they are both allowed to live.

In the second book, Catching Fire, the 75th anniversary Games have a different format, and the tributes are to be chosen from past victors. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss is sent back to the arena. There is a Victory Tour, which gives the reader glimpses of all the Districts, as well as more strategy and backstory about the lives lead by previous victors. Collins gives Katniss the additional challenge of not only staying alive through the Games, but also coming to understand how the Games function in the political life of Panem. It's really pretty savvy plot construction, broadening the scope of the story and adding more complex world-building, while also not simply repeating the first book. Katniss has to survive again, and this time it requires different skills and even trusting others.

By the end of Catching Fire, Katniss has been rescued (abducted?) from the arena and flown by a rebel alliance to the mythical District 13. Of course, it's not just a myth, it's a real place that refused to surrender to the Capitol and threatened to use its nuclear capacity to destroy Panem. It was driven underground and cut off from the rest of the country, forced to provide all it's own needs. It is, conceptually, the Sparta to the Capitol's decadent Rome. Everyone is disciplined, rationed, conscripted to service the needs of the whole. There is little margin of any sort, all material goods are strictly inventoried and allocated sparingly. Katniss hates it. She is rarely allowed outside, she spends a lot of time passive-aggressively avoiding the obligations. This puts her in conflict with the leader of District 13, President Alma Coin.

This goes on for a very long time, as Katniss shifts the tiny distance between traumatized victim and bratty teen. Her partner in the Hunger Games, Peeta, was left behind in the Capitol, and she feels guilty for that. Gale, the boy she spent her time with back home, is slowing becoming militant in his opposition to the Capitol. Stuff happens with her family as well, as Prim is growing up but Katniss doesn't want to see it.

(Katniss is such an angsty martyr at this point, it would be funny if it weren't so dull.)

Eventually, a plan is developed to use her as the face of the rebellion, which means even more boring grooming sequences and photo shoots. Admittedly, I appreciate the fact that Collins is making a point of how much work goes into making someone camera ready and looking "naturally" beautiful--I do! Female beauty standards require a fair amount of work and attention, and Collins gives it to us at full volume. Katniss is also amazingly bad at acting, and the videos of her pretending to fight are risible.

Eventually, a plan is hatched that Katniss and her team--including camera operators and beauticians--will be taken to the Capitol where rebels are fighting a guerrilla style war. The plan is to drop her into areas that have already been secured, do some mock fighting, and then pull her out. Propaganda, pure and simple. What could go wrong?

Well, obviously, EVERYTHING could go wrong, and does. The team ends up watching atrocities and experiencing deaths, they find themselves in real battles, and the death toll grows. The President has booby trapped the Capitol with Games-like weapons, and the team ends up working their way through basements and apartments. At one point, they end up hidden in the basement of a former Games stylist for days, doing absolutely nothing while the war advances to a climactic moment. They join the assault on the President's palace, where Katniss witnesses the moral bankruptcy of the regime. A concrete enclosure/bunker has been erected in front of the palace, and filled with children. Any attempt at storming the gates will kill the kids. Then from somewhere a fighter jet strafes the kids--is it a rebel plane, or a double feint from the President? The rebels respond by sending in medics--and of course the first medic killed by the booby trapped kid enclosure is Prim.

Katniss is once again deeply traumatized, and also in the middle of things while not actually doing very much. She ends up inside the palace after it has been taken by the District 13 forces. President Snow is a captive--kept very nicely in a comfortable set of rooms, which offends her deeply. Strategy sessions are held, and Katniss has a seat at that table. A proposal is bruited about that a final Hunger Games be staged, using the children from the Capitol. And despite her experience of the horror, Katniss votes to hold them, to spread the pain around. It's a jarring choice, and not one well supported by the author.

Things keep happening off stage, and finally, Katniss is called upon to serve as President Snow's executioner. She stands on the balcony of the palace along side the new President Coin, and she has managed to discern that the new system is going to be a corrupt and horrible as the old one. Not sure what gives her this insight--perhaps she's just delusional at this point. In any event, she shoots the new president instead of the old one, but Snow obliges everybody by dying via cyanide capsule or something like it.

Then Katniss goes home to District 12, where Peeta comes too. The district had been bombed to the ground earlier, so almost no one is there, and in the end, Katniss marries Peeta because really, she's too tired to do anything else? This epilogue is weirdly tacked on, serving primarily as a declaration that Collins is done, done, DONE with this series and she's going to tie it all up so nobody can make her go back to it. After "10 or 15 years" Katniss caves in and has a couple of kids with Peeta, because she's pretty sure they won't be sucked up into a rebooted Hunger Games, and anyway, Peeta really wanted them.

Gale is given a "very important" job in District 2 and disappears from her life and the epilogue. Shippers--you have been told. No Gale/Katniss pairing will be allowed.

Kudos to Ms. Collins for tweaking the formula with each sequel, so they aren't quite the same story over and over again. On the other hand, it's clear that she was ready to be done, and did whatever she needed to to end the saga.

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