With the third movie in the Hunger Games series not far away, you just know I’ve got to prep myself by catching up on the books. Despite the dramatic cliffhanger at the end of Catching Fire, I was able to hold off reading the last book in the trilogy for quite some time. Of course, I knew that this finale would not be like the first two books, which were both play-by-plays of the Hunger Games (with the second being the Quarter Quell version of the games). With District 12 destroyed and much of Panem in chaos, things were not going to go back to “normal”. This last novel could really have been subtitled “Katniss goes to war”.
Not only is the plot going to be very different, the setting is totally new as well. At the start of this story, Katniss has been taken to District 13 (whose destruction had been an obvious lie) where many familiar faces are playing very different wartime roles. Haymitch and Plutarch the game maker are leaders and planners in the war effort led by District 13 and its President Coin. Beetee is now a technical consultant, hacking broadcast signals and designing weaponry for the rebellion. Gale is also part of the troops as one of the fighters, while Katniss’s mother and sister Prim are involved in the medical care efforts. The environment of District 13 is strict and regimented (especially now that they are at war with the Capital). There is limited freedom and limited variety and, to Katniss’s chagrin, District 13 seems to have survived mostly by maintaining tight control over its resources and populace. Under those conditions, Katniss struggles to find her place as she’s commissioned (she makes a deal with the President) to act as the figurehead, the Mockingjay, to rally the troops to fight the Capital. This war is not just about guns, bombs, and planes, but also about the hearts and minds of the citizens of all 13 districts. Ironically, Katniss is once again put in front of cameras where she has to play a role. We get to meet some interesting new characters as well, with Boggs (one of the commanders and leader of Katniss’s squad), Cressida (a media director, responsible for putting together the broadcasts that Katniss will feature in), and Castor and Pollux (two of Cressida’s crew).
As a young-adult, sci-fi novel, this book is predictably going to simplify the politics of this world for easy reader digestion. Like Darth Vader, Voldemort, or any number of powerful evil tyrants, the Capital’s President Snow cares nothing for human life and is pretty much pure evil, (Though there are a few times when he tries to justify himself or Katniss comes a bit closer to sympathizing him, in the end they do nothing to improve his morality.) That makes it easier for the good guys to fight (though to Collins’s credit, there are numerous scenes of dialogue and deliberation about the idea of war — especially a civil war — where atrocities are being committed and rationalized as the greater good.) The demonizing of political leaders is pretty cynical and has been increasing over the course of this trilogy. Ironically this story also plays up the power of media to sway the people — an easy comparison between Snow and Adolf Hitler (who also placed importance on the media’s persuasiveness in times of war). These kinds of themes really put the Hunger Games trilogy over other similar young-adult series for trying to deal with bigger issues (as opposed to the often personal themes such as vengeance, justice, mercy, love, etc. that are at the heart of most good-vs-evil stories in popular sci-fi).
While I enjoyed most of the characters in this last book, surprisingly I didn’t like Katniss as much. Without the Hunger Games and the struggle for survival, Katniss seemed to have lost (pardon the pun) some of her fire. She didn’t seem as much the strong young woman that she has come to symbolize in popular culture. Too often she was plagued with self-doubt and had a difficult time dealing with her own emotions. Add to that the occasional injury which leaves her a bit fragile and I was actually surprised that this person ever could have won the Hunger Games. Perhaps this was Collins’s attempt to provide psychological realism to the story, giving Katniss a bit more dimension, but I became annoyed at her frequent moping and whining (even if it was often in her own head). Katniss also spent a lot of time and energy struggling with her celebrity. It was a challenge for her to cope with pressures that being a public figure put on her, and the duality of having a life on camera and one off-camera. Throughout the series that was an issue for her love triangle with Peeta and Gale (since she had to fake being in love with Peeta for the Capital). I am still surprised that both those guys are so devoted to Katniss. I always felt that if Collins was trying to be realistic, one or both of them would have moved on a long time ago. Nevertheless, their relationships are definitely the emotional driver of the story — which is why it surprised me how much stake was placed on the importance of Katniss’s sister Prim to her happiness, and yet she doesn’t spend much time in the story interacting with Prim at all.
Overall I enjoyed Mockingjay, but not nearly as much as the first and second novels. There was less of a story arc to this book (since I guess it has to tie up a lot of loose ends) and was generally less fun (I guess there’s something to be said for competitive games as a means of engaging people’s interest). This ending is darker than the previous books (which were already about children killing each other in state-required gladiator games to the death). The world that’s left behind by the end is hopeful but still depressing and not someplace that I want to revisit any time soon. (3.5 out of 5)