I wasn’t very excited to read Catching Fire at first. The first book, The Hunger Games, was an original blend of sci-fi, action, and drama but I expected that the 2nd novel might be a revisiting of those same elements: the Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle, the inventive yet cruel Hunger Games, and the dystopian backdrop of the nation of Panem; all in an attempt to repeat the success of the first book. Nevertheless, I started the book in order to get prepared for the movie adaptation but now that I love the second book so much, I am growing impatient with my long wait until November for the movie’s release.
Unfortunately for anyone who hasn’t read The Hunger Games, this is not the kind of novel that you can easily pick up without having read that first novel. The story picks up with Katniss Everdeen, one of an unprecedented two victors from the last Hunger Games (an annual to-the-death competition) on a PR tour around the nation. As she reluctantly plays her part (along with fellow victor Peeta Mellark) as a kind of figurehead for the Capital’s authority over the nation, she also starts to see the increasingly obvious cracks of dissent between the 12 districts and the Capital. The evil oppressiveness of the Capital is embodied by Panem’s President Snow himself (who becomes a more significant character in this book), who is ruthless in keeping a grip on Katniss, and the spark of rebellion that she symbolizes. I enjoyed the surprising political aspects to this story (which I did not suspect would be so prominent in a young adult novel) especially in lieu of a lot of the teenage love-triangle-melodrama that seems so cliche. I’m still not the biggest Katniss fan. I get that she’s a smart, confident young woman, but I don’t see why everyone is so devoted to her. Though the novel gives a lot of room for exploring Katniss’s thoughts and feelings (which is one of the things that makes it a good read), I’m glad it does not reach Twilight-level moping with regard to whether Katniss’s heart belongs to Peeta, or Gale (her rebellious, quasi-boyfriend). The story starts to resemble a kind of dystopian Les Miserables as the Capital’s grip on the nation tightens and feelings of rebellion start to really simmer and boil.
While it may have been entirely predictable, I was actually surprised that Suzanne Collins was able to incorporate a second instance of the Hunger Games where Katniss would be a participant. I had heard about the Quarter Quell (a special Hunger Games to celebrate every 25 years) where (much like Survivor: All-Stars) the competitors are all picked from past victors. I was afraid that it was going to be a contrived story element (to repeat the first Hunger Games) or a plot device to quickly escalate Katniss’s story. Instead, it was actually and exciting, well-thought-out part of the story and essential to the story that follows. The Quarter Quell managed not to feel like a repeat of the Games from the previous novel: for one, a new significant character, Finnick Odair (the golden-boy charmer from District 4), was introduced who became an ally to Katniss. Also, the arena (a tropical, sea-side environment) and the challenges were significantly different. The concept that competitors were all past winners put different strategies and agendas in play as well beyond mere survival.
Rather than feeling like a lull between the introductory novel and the final conclusion, Catching Fire was more of an exciting return to the world of The Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen that not only brings back what I enjoyed about the first novel, but also amps up the story and action in a way that is interesting, compelling and makes me very eager for the final novel (I warn you, the last paragraph of Catching Fire is a doozy). If you enjoyed the characters in the first novel, this instalment will allow you to know them (and love them) even more — I especially enjoyed visualizing the perfectly-cast Woody Harrelson as Haymitch this time around. After the first book, this is another great blend of sci-fi, action, melodrama, and an all-around page-turner. (And if you check out the audiobook, the voice of Carolyn McCormick does a really good job expressing Katniss’s emotions. I found myself choked up a number of times.) (4.5 out of 5)