There are plenty of dystopian young-adult books out there, but Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games beat our brains into submission, in a barbaric bloodspot arena. Can the sequel, Catching Fire, capture our love all over again? Spoilers below...
In many ways, Catching Fire is a sequel about sequels. In the first book, Katniss Everdeen not only wins the barbaric Hunger Games that the totalitarian rulers of a future America use to entertain the vassals — she also manages to keep her fellow gladiator, Peeta, alive. She does this by faking an epic love story between Peeta and herself — although it's real for Peeta, and anyone who's ever read a coming-of-age novel will suspect it'll eventually be real for Katniss as well.
In the second book, Collins investigates what happens after you win, and what happens when the "happy ever after" portion of the story has to continue on and on. It's even more meta than the first book, because Katniss has become very aware of being an entertainer, and having a responsibility to project the proper image to her viewers. And we end up going through a lot of the same stuff as in the first book, only with a few new wrinkles and a lot more political awareness.
As you may have heard in the audio excerpt we posted a while back, Katniss' inadvertent act of defiance — saving Peeta when the game-masters decreed he must die — becomes a potent symbol of rebellion to the downtrodden peoples of Panem. Because she managed to beat the game and save not just herself but also her friend, people are now seeing her as the heroine of their new uprising.
This means that President Snow puts Katniss under renewed pressure to perform in the public spotlight — she has to convince everyone that she acted out of love for Peeta, not a desire to rebel against the Capitol. And it also means that Katniss' personal life becomes more intensely political than ever before. The first book in the series obsessed about the ways that celebrity culture and reality television could function in a totalitarian society — not unlike that original Star Trek episode with the Roman gladitorial games broadcast on television — but Catching Fire takes these concerns to a new level.
Just as Katniss had to manufacture a fake love story in the first book, she now has to manufacture a fake "happily ever after ending" coda in the second. And this time, she's keenly aware of just how loathed the oppressors in the Capitol are everywhere else, and how close the country is to rising up in rebellion.
The book really takes off about halfway through, when Katniss finally decides she's had enough of trying to support the status quo, and starts actively trying to encourage rebellion from her perch as a celebrity in the decadent Panem culture. All of a sudden, her media manipulation has two different purposes: to play the role that's been laid out for her, to the satisfaction of the people in power, but also to signal to the would-be rebels that they're not alone.
And it's not much of a spoiler to say that there's another gladitorial wilderness contest in the second book — except that this time, there are a couple of twists, neither of which you'll probably see coming.
Catching Fire isn't quite as strong a book as The Hunger Games, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the first-person narration that served so well in the first book turns out to be a liability this time around — in the first book, knowing intimately what was going on in Katniss' head while she was pantomiming for the cameras made the story much richer and more layered. But this time around, a lot of the story's most crucial events take place outside of Katniss' presence, and she occasionally gets hints that the peasants are, as they say, revolting. A lot of the story's events lack impact because we hear about them third-hand.
And the other major problem is that you may be hard-pressed to believe in Katniss' sudden ascension to symbol of the rebellion. Sure, she was gutsy and defied the people in charge by threatening to kill herself instead of letting the game-makers kill Peeta — but is that enough to make her the Che Guevara of the rebels? I'm not sure — I've wrestled with this a lot since I finished reading the book the other day, and I'm still not quite on board. On the one hand, I get that this is a culture that's celebrity-obsessed and oppressed, and the winners of the Hunger Games are built up as huge icons. And every detail of their lives is scrutinized. But on the other... it seems like a bit of a leap from "Don't kill my friend or I'll kill myself" to "Smash the state! Burn the factories!"
But if you can get on board with the Katniss-as-rebel-icon thing, then it's a great ride. And Collins is definitely trying to say something profound about symbols, and how both the vapid media imagery and the propaganda of the state can be subverted and appropriated by rebels. The people of Panem have no pop culture except for what the state-supported media gives them, so it makes sense that they take their new state-supported heroine, Katniss, and convert her into their rebel standard. And she does kick a billion different kinds of ass.
In any case, turning Katniss into the symbolic leader of the resistance does allow Collins to open up all sorts of questions about politics and the gap between appearance and reality in any media-saturated society. We learn, more and more, that the Capitol has been manipulating the images that people in the Districts have been seeing. And we find out that a lot of people are willing to make a lot of sacrifices to keep Kat safe, and to help her incite the people of the Districts to rise up.
Bottom line: as a friend of mine was saying, Catching Fire isn't quite as good as The Hunger Games was, but it's still a fascinating extension of the first book's worldbuilding. The themes of fame and survival under an iron dictatorship become deeper and more tangled. Mostly, Catching Fire holds your interest and makes you desperately eager to find out what Collins will do in the third volume of the trilogy — especially since it ends with several shockers. [Amazon or Bookfinder]