Mockingjay proves the Hunger Games is must-read literature

Mockingjay, the end of Suzanne Collins' science-fictional Hunger Games trilogy, attracted the kind of fervor usually reserved for YA fantasy like Twilight or Harry Potter. And the good news is, it more than lives up to the hype.

I'm going to keep this review almost spoiler-free — there will be minor league spoilers, but nothing too heavy duty, and no major plot twists. Please try to do the same in the comments — if you need to post a spoilery comment, the Mockingjay spoiler thread is here.

So to start off with, I'll just give the verdict first: Mockingjay starts off badly, with a rocky first few chapters full of clunky exposition. And then it quickly gathers steam and becomes a thing of incredible beauty and power, until it reaches an ending that you'll be thinking about for days, or maybe years, afterwards. And for those of you who've been waiting until the third volume came out to decide whether to read the Hunger Games books, it's now officially a good idea to do so. This trilogy is going to be up there with Ender's Game and a select handful of other books as a powerful examination of coming of age and wartime.

So I wasn't entirely sure how Mockingjay was going to play out — the second book in the series, Catching Fire, tried to copy the formula of the first book a bit too much for my liking, but it featured an ending that shifted the status quo so radically that the third book would have to be something totally different. But Collins manages to bring back all of the same themes and ideas from the first two books, only in a radically new context that makes them even deeper and more heart-breaking.

In case you know nothing about the series, the Hunger Games series takes place in the future. The shattered remains of the United States, now called Panem, are separated into 12 different districts under the rule of a tyrranical Capitol. And as punishment for a past rebellion against the Capitol, every year the districts send two young people, "tributes," to take part in games of survival in a huge artificial arena, and the whole thing is televised. The "tributes" have to put on a good performance on television, or they won't win as much support from viewers — and support can mean supplies that could save their lives. So Katniss becomes not only a popular hero, but a kind of celebrity, and potentially a symbol of resistance against the Capitol.

Mockingjay proves the Hunger Games is must-read literature

It's a weird setup, to be sure — a post-apocalyptic future in which so much that we take for granted is gone, but reality television remains. But Collins' deft hand, and her awareness that celebrity culture can be a powerful source of propaganda, keep this notion from ever feeling too contrived. And the idea that a pampered celebrity can become a symbol for countless suffering, starving people provides lots of food for thought, especially once everybody wants to use Katniss for their own ends.

And the conundrum of the first two books — that Katniss is only really compelling when she's at her most spontaneous and genuine — becomes ever sharper in the third book, as Katniss tries to live up to her status as a symbol while struggling with some seriously heavy stuff.

Without giving away what happens in book three, the twin themes of celebrity-fueled propaganda and struggling to survive in adversity get sharpened, and they transform into something else. Katniss, who by now is accustomed to living on television, is confronted with a situation where reality itself seems to be fragile. There's a running motif in the second half of the book, where people play a game called "real or not real," in which they double-check their own memories, because they're trying to hold on to the truth about their own lives.

Everybody is broken in Mockingjay, all of the fierce relentless survivors from the earlier books are basically now basket cases, including Katniss a fair part of the time. There are nightmares, and horrible pain, and grief, and lots of drugs — by the end of the third book, the habitual drunkenness of Katniss' mentor Haymitch starts to seem like harmless self-medicating. Even as they battle the relentless power of the Capitol, our heroes are struggling to hold on to their sanity. There's one hilarious bit where one of the survivors of the Hunger Games says something particularly horrible, and everyone stares at her. She replies, "What? My head doctor says I'm not supposed to censor my thoughts. It's part of my therapy."

The struggle with madness and horror makes for fascinating television, in Collins' media-saturated world. And Collins' writing, which is clunky in the early chapters, gets better and better as the emotional pain sharpens. Here's one particularly great passage from halfway through the book:

I'm not flailing now, as my muscles are rigid with the tension of holding myself together. The pain over my heart returns, and from it I imagine tiny fissures spreading out into my body. Through my torso, down my arms and legs, over my face, leaving it crisscrossed with cracks. One good jolt of a bunker missile and I could shatter into strange, razor-sharp shards.

But I don't want to leave you with the impression that this book is just depressing or horrifying — it is definitely brutal and intense, but Katniss also continues her journey towards becoming not just a survivor, but a real hero. And though that journey seldom takes the turns you expect it to take — this book caught me by surprise a half dozen times, just when it comes to Katniss' evolution and the choices she makes — she does step up and amaze everyone, including herself. The real achievement of Collins' writing and world-building is, Katniss' rise to heroism actually feels believable and not like some kind of rote summer-movie crap. Given how much there is in these books about ways to manipulate an audience, Collins is rightly careful to avoid feeding us any kind of flim flam in her depiction of Katniss' progress. And yes, it's always bittersweet rather than "end of Star Wars, big medal scene" sweet.

There is also some really twisted, awesome humor, including a bit where they wind up visiting a former top stylist, surgically altered to look like a tiger woman, who's now running a squalid fur underwear shop, and Katniss observes:

So this is where stylists go when they've outlived their use. To sad theme underwear shops where they wait for death.

And yet, as we later discover, fur underwear is incredibly valuable and useful after an apocalypse.

The other way in which Collins manages to raise the stakes in this final book is by bringing up the spectre of extinction. Sure, it's noble for the downtrodden people of the Districts to want to rise up against the oppressive Capitol and demand their freedom — but the human race has been reduced to such tiny numbers at this point, a protracted war risks reducing the human population below replacement levels. This idea is brought up again and again in Mockingjay, even as we see people dying all over the place, but nobody ever really has a good answer for it.

Won't somebody think of the children? Oh wait. They thought of the children first — they put them in a death arena for our amusement. Silly me.

All in all, Mockingjay confirms what we've suspected already — The Hunger Games isn't just a powerful saga about a unique, memorable hero struggling to do the right thing in the public gaze. It's also an important work of science fiction that everyone should read, because if you don't, you'll be left out of all the best conversations.