After I put my notes on "The Hunger Games" on GoodReads, I was a little surprised to see that I was in an extreme minority of only-partially-positive commenters -- the book has one of the highest aggregate review scores I've ever seen on that site. So, I thought I would file my minority report here as well.
The Hunger Games
Susanne Collins, 2008.
Steven King's The Long Walk meets 1984 (meets a less well-known but excellent book, Iain Banks' The Player of Games) in a remarkably well-written YA post-apocalyptic fantasy novel. Collins does an impressive job of invoking and sustaining an internally plausible world and populating it with telling details that don't scream for attention (I liked, for instance, the neoclassical affectations of "the capital.") I was initially annoyed at the amount of time the book would spend setting up perfectly obvious scenarios and then endlessly protracting how long it took for the first-person narrator to think them through, but as things progressed there were enough surprises to keep me on my toes. As an adventure-thriller, Hunger Games works a winning formula very well; the macabre tournament at the story's core is nicely realized.
Underneath the terrific surface, though, it's a book with some conceptual problems. Most obvious is the disingenuous anti-urban, anti-guvment grandstanding. As dystopias go, this is less an Orwellian anti-totalitarian wake-up call and more as if Sarah Palin got clever and wrote a book intended to embody the values of her notorious construct of "The Real America." I dunno whether this slant reflects an authorial agenda or if it's just something that evolved as Collins went about the work of creating a setting for a good gladiator yarn, but there it is.
There's also a fairly glaring moral dishonesty in how our point-of-view character survives the death-match. The Bad Contestants (who are, incidentally, established as Bad primarily by their association with urban society and da guvment) actively kill. The Good (rural, disenfranchised) Contestants are allowed by the plotting to kill only defensively, indirectly, out of mercy, and by outlasting the hapless. They get to succeed in the tournament -- and how! -- without really engaging in it, a contrivance that allows the book to set up a genuinely complex moral quandary and then resolutely refuse to engage with it.
Well, that's OK. Most adventure stories have wobbly underpinnings if you're worried about that sort of thing. The important thing, maybe, is just that I found The Hunger Games an entertaining and engaging story. And I really did! But I've noticed too -- and this is what makes this a three-star review instead of a four-star review [out of GoodReads' possible five] -- that despite this being the first book of a series, I can't really find any interest in reading the second installment. I'm just not curious about what happens next. That makes it hard to hold up Hunger Games as an especially successful piece of serial fiction.