Last week I reviewed The Hunger Games, concluding that it wasn’t particularly good though it had a few well-done moments. I decided to relisten to the sequel, Catching Fire, because I remember actually liking that one. Like last week, I must note two things before I begin: one, plot ending details and other general spoilers are sure to follow, and two, I own the audio version of this book meaning I do not have the text in front of me to quote from.
Catching Fire has all of the notable problems of The Hunger Games. It’s written in a shoddy form of first-person present, it violates the “show, don’t tell rule,” and the setting is still hard to buy into. However, now that I’ve had a book to get used to these flaws, it’s easier to ignore them, or at least begrudgingly accept them.
Perhaps it’s all about lowering expectations.
Or perhaps Catching Fire is just generally better.
Catching Fire opens right after The Hunger Games ends. Katness and Peeta are back at home, preparing to go on a grand tour of Panem. But Katness can’t fall into an easy life of wealth and fame since she had to cheat the Capitol to save herself and Peeta, and the Capitol isn’t one to be cheated.
She is right to worry as President Snow himself shows up at her house, bringing threats, orders, and talks of rebellion.
We also get information that every 25 years, the Hunger Games mixes things up with a Quarter Quell, and this year is Hunger Games number 75. I’m not sure if this is deep foreshadowing or severe predictability, but by chapter two or three, readers should expect Katness and Peeta to wind up back in the Hunger Games.
Predictability aside, Catching Fire is easily the best book of the three. Catching Fire is paced in a similar fashion to The Hunger Games, moving along faster than it should without dwelling on many details, but it is structured in a much better way. The book also spends more time on characters and characterization, something The Hunger Games forgot to do.
There is a much realer sense of urgency and threat this time around. Within the first two or three chapters we are introduced to the main antagonist of the story, and putting a name and a face to all of Katness’s problems helps us appreciate them better. Now we have someone to rally against, and that someone really takes the lead badguy role with gusto. President Snow is delightfully creepy and ominous, smelling of roses and blood and possessing a harsh, controlling air about himself.
Knowing this is who Katness must outwit and outmatch makes for a much more hopeless situation than surviving the Games. It was always possible to win the Hunger Games, but it seems woefully impossible to best President Snow.
With orders to do her best to quell possible rebellions, Katness is shipped out to the other 11 Districts with Peeta on a victory tour. I really wanted to spend more time with the Districts, to learn about them and their people, but we only really see District 11. The others are summed up within a few paragraphs. What we get out of District 11 is rife with tension and the threat of a budding rebellion, and Katness and Peeta wind up leaving as rioters are being shot, but I still wanted more world building.
There’s just so much more going on in this book compared to the first one. Catching Fire forgoes the pageantry of the Hunger Games and instead builds up problems that affect the entirety of Panem. Rebellions are much more interesting than watching characters play dressup, participate in interviews, or train in the fine arts of building snares.
The Hunger Games wanted to be an action book but failed. Catching Fire knows it isn’t an action book but a drama, and it is structured accordingly. Katness meets new issues at every turn, but they are more sociopolitical than anything else, though the outcome for failure remains death. It’s not until around chapter 20 that she and Peeta get shipped off to the Hunger Games, and this last third of the book acts as a lengthened climax to a drama rather than a dull action novel. It actually works quite well, and I respect the change of structure.
The 75th Hunger Games is also more interesting than the 74th. The arena is shaped like a clock with large chunks of water and jungle mixed in. Food and fresh water are harder to obtain than in the previous book, but weapons are aplenty. There’s also a fun gimmick with the arena that I won’t spoil, but I really enjoyed it and the struggles it presented.
(Of course this arena would be even more expensive than the last one, what with all of the water and dueling ecosystems of jungle and oceanic wildlife.)
But forcing past tributes to compete makes the entirety of the Hunger Games harder to buy into. Citizens of the Capitol get attached to the winners, and they are all quite upset to see past victors go back into the games. Of course, they were all willing to watch these adults kill each other when they were kids and not damaged by PTSD, drugs, and/or age, but their outrage at these 75th Hunger Games seems genuine. This makes me question the whole system though, and not in a “isn’t this interesting” kind of way; it’s more of a “this created world doesn’t make sense” kind of way. Such questioning takes me out of the experience.
Catching Fire really shines in the characterization department though. In The Hunger Games, the only really developed characters were Katness and Peeta, and though Rue and Haymitch got quite a bit of screen time, they never changed. Cinna, Eiffy, and Katness’s prep team were all fairly one-dimensional and existed only to serve their own plot purposes. In Catching Fire, all of these characters are explored more fully and shown to be more than what the plot calls for. We learn why Haymitch acts the way he does, why he chose the life he’s currently living. We learn quite a bit more about Cinna and how he views his surroundings, even if he has to be discrete about his opinions. Eiffy is a bit more rounded and actually shown to care about those she works with, even if her feelings are still somewhat muted. Even Katness’s prep team are shown to be more than just shallow stylists.
It’s quite nice.
On top of that, the other tributes that enter the arena with Katness are actually given some personality. They are now much more than fodder to be killed off screen. Even better is that all of these characters are interesting, albeit damaged and unhinged, and this actually makes it sad to see them kill each other and die in the arena. One of the problems with The Hunger Games was that all of the tributes, save Rue, were simply there to act as red shirts. Most weren’t even named, and a handful were made to be evil and crazy so the book had someone to root against. Katness was sad to see them die, but she was the only one to shed such emotions. It is impossible to care for characters whose only definitions are their quirky names.
It’s different here, and it’s a good change.
The characters all seem to act smarter as well, though some of Katness’s dialogue is kind of bad. The rules to the Quarter Quell are announced a few months in advance, so Katness and Peeta spend time training and preparing, and when they enter the arena, they team up with others and form a group. Given that the Career tributes always form a group and that a Career tribute is usually a victor, it makes more sense to follow this style of play than to go solo. Katness’s forced playstyle change is both nice in that it makes survival sense, and nice in that it gives a different flavor to the Hunger Games. Catching Fire isn’t rehashing it’s predecessor.
Though why the tributes fight at all is beyond me. All of the victors know each other and are mostly on friendly terms, so you’d think they would all just gather in a group and not participate. Civil disobedience! The Capitol can put them all into an arena and tell them to fight, but the Capitol can’t actually force them to fight. But this never crosses anyone’s mind and so friends slaughter friends.
In The Hunger Games, we got the trio of Katness/Peeta/Gale. This triangle was set up to display the different characteristics and abilities of the characters; Peeta and Gale were foils of each other, and their heightened emotions opposed Katness’s pragmatism. In this book, an actual love triangle is hinted at, but it’s brushed away by Katness who doesn’t want to love any of them. It is nice to see this cliché young-adult-novel love triangle subverted.
Catching Fire isn’t a bad book. It has problems in writing and narrative style, but it manages to be a fun and dramatic plot read nonetheless. It takes established lore and expectations from The Hunger Games and does manage something new, and that’s both welcomed and appreciated. I can’t in good faith recommend it simply because the first book isn’t very good, but if you read the first book, you might as well check out the sequel. It is an improvement.
(I have no plans on relistening to Mockingjay as that book is downright awful and not worth my time, even as some academic study on what not to do. If you haven’t read any of these books, I’d suggest staying away from them mostly because the final book in the series is atrocious, but also because the first two aren’t exactly gems either.)