THE HUNGER GAMES Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2008, 374 pages hardback, NZ $24.99. [US$17.99] ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1
“A boy, I think from District 9, reaches the pack at the same time I do and for a brief time we grapple for it and then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm, sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That’s when I see the knife in his back.”
Ironically published as the 2008 Olympic Games enthusiasm reached fever pitch, Hunger Games is the first of a series of teenage novels about a brutal contest of the future. Panem, the shattered remnant of the United States, demands an annual tribute of two young people from each of its twelve poverty-stricken districts. (A 13th district was obliterated in an unsuccessful rebellion.)
In a twist of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, the 24 teenagers are sent out into a controlled wilderness area to fight each other to the death as a television spectacle. When her little sister is chosen, sixteen year old Katniss, volunteers to represent District 12 (the Appalachian coalfields). Ironically her fellow tribute is Peeta, the local baker’s son. Katniss owes her life to Peeta. Can she kill him in the Hunger Games? And will she be able to survive the attempts of the other 23 contestants to kill her? Katniss is a skilled hunter but the games organisers have introduced several dangerous traps including land mines and mutated creatures, making the games a bread and circuses spectacle for the oppressed populace.
Suzanne Collins has created an exciting, fast-moving story. The Hunger Games are so well detailed, with their spectacular opening ceremony and plausible rules and hazards, that the reader simply accepts their existence and is swept along like Katniss. After a series of glamorous public appearances, she finds herself in a hostile wilderness fighting for her life.
By its very nature this novel has to deal with violence and war, trust and betrayal. Yet it is also the first volume of a series and it becomes clear that some characters have yet to play their full part. Haymitch, the drunken survivor of an earlier Game, seems to have hidden depths. Gale, a fellow hunter, has an attraction for Katniss, which creates a romantic triangle when Peeta declares his love for her. Or is Peeta’s declaration simply a strategy to gain an advantage in the fatal days ahead?
Stephen King has called The Hunger Games “scarily addictive” and he’s right.