Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Symbols: A Review of Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Finishing Hunger Games left me naturally curious to see how an author could possibly follow up a book like that. Since I was able to borrow this book at no cost and very little inconvenience (thanks, Amazon Prime) I decided to read it right away.

If I sound less than fervently enthusiastic, it's because I was afraid that this book might suffer from MBS (Middle Book Syndrome). It happens to novels in the middle of series with a pre-ordained number of books. Remember how Goblet of Fire, book four in the Harry Potter series, was the one with the abrupt tone shift from happy magic boarding school to "Holy crap, people are dying!"? (Although, oddly, I think book 5 was the bigger MBS sufferer in that series). Or there's Lord of the Rings, where so little happens in The Two Towers that you could almost skip it and miss nothing. Crossed by Allie Condie has MBS so bad that the characters spent most of the book wandering around in a canyon waiting for plot to occur. MBS is a serious problem, people. Authors just don't know what to do with that middle book. If all of the exposition and world building goes in the first book(s), and the climax is saved for the last book(s), then we need the middle book to make a bridge between the two--without being boring or losing focus, and it has to still have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end of its own. Keep that in mind when we get to the critical comments.

Enough ranting, what's the plot? That's a damn good question. Basically, Katnis returns to District 12 where she is supposed to be happy and victorious and in love...but in reality, her worries have only multiplied. She has no idea what her feelings for Peeta really are, and there's Gale to consider. The Capitol is out to get her, because her actions in the Games have unintentionally incited rebellion in the districts. The president more or less tells Katnis that if she can't find a way to help diffuse the situation, he will find a way to get rid of her. She and Peeta go on a victory tour of the districts that fails to even slightly diffuse anything.

Positive Comments

It's undeniably readable. I read most of it in a one night nonstop marathon, which I found quite enjoyable. There's action, turmoil, angst, rebellion. Decent pacing. All of the things that make a page turner.

I felt like I understood Katnis better in this book. I had a clearer picture of her motivations and emotions. Basically, she's conflicted. Deep inside, she wants to rebel against the Capitol and fight for a better world. But she can't do so without jeopardizing the important people in her life. So instead of grand gestures of defiance, her rebellion leaks out on impulse and to unpredictable degrees. I also really liked the idea of Katnis unwittingly becoming a symbol for rebellion. She's panicked by it, and sort of bemused, but reluctantly awesome is still awesome.

Critical Comments

The kindest thing I can say about the plot is: at least it's not boring. Boring is perhaps the worst symptom of MBS. Unfortunately, it's still a clear MBS victim for the simple reason that things just don't really happen in this book. Much of Katnis's homecoming is described in an after the fact, detached sort of way that sucks the emotion right out of it. The romantic tension is still lacking for me (more on that in a minute). The climax is basically a repeat of the first book. And then, at the very end of the end, we get a big reveal and a cliffhanger. So really, there's action, it's never boring, but the progress in the overarching plot is next to none.

I don't think Suzanne Collins knows how to create romantic tension. That's not necessarily something to be ashamed of, lots of popular authors can't ("It happens to a lot of guys!"). But with that in mind, I can't imagine why she sets up the Peeta/Gale dilemma for Katnis. I really don't feel emotionally attached to either relationship. There aren't enough raw, genuine moments between Katnis and either of them to really make me believe it's true and everlasting love. She obviously cares for them. She's willing to die for Peeta, but who can tell if that's love or guilt or wanting him to be the leader of the rebellion after she dies? Relationship building in this book fails completely


Obviously if your reading the series, you have to read the middle book. No getting around it. This one suffers from a mild case of MBS, but it could have been a lot worse. So yes, I still recommed it. 3.5 stars.

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