Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

If a sequel is worse than the original, does that guarantee it gets a lower rating than the original?

Catching Fire, the sequel to the Hunger Games follows Katniss through the fallout of having not only won the Hunger Games, but thwarted their masters in the process. These Masters now look to extract their revenge through threats, violence and jackbooted thugs. Katniss is forced to watch people suffer for actions she believes are her own fault, and finds herself paralyzed with doubt.

It continues to be a story about Katniss more than anything else and she and all the other veterans from the first book continue to shock and amaze with their likability, comprehensive personalities and so on. The book's biggest problem lies with the new characters introduced in this book. President Snow is a completely one dimensional villain for the book to personify the cruelty of the Capitol. Where once we had people like Effie, who were casually cruel, but complete personalities, or people like Caesar who had clear moments of understanding of how the Games really hurt people, now President Snow is just a vicious toad with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In addition, Gale, who we met only very briefly in one scene in the first book, only has one real scene in this book as well. There's supposedly a lot of conflict in Katniss' mind regarding the two boys in her life, and yet we still have yet to really meet one of them! Heck, Gale's mother is more of a character than he is. Finnick is really the only addition to the cast that feels on the level of characters introduced in the first book in terms of quality. His humor adds a lot of levity to this book that is probably the only concrete thing in this book definitively better than the original, and he doesn't sacrifice any depth or complexity to bring that levity.

In addition, this book is not nearly as clever as the first one. Katniss spends a lot of time unable to piece together really obvious clues when once she was able to deduce situations extremely quickly. She won the first Hunger Games because she was smart, but the most potent weapon she employs in the sequel is other people liking her. The Games that the character Haymitch won in the past... the one Katniss concluded he must have won by being smarter than everyone else, is revealed to have been about 50-50 dumb luck and random mass guessing on Haymitch's part. No one in Catching Fire is as smart as they were in the Hunger Games, which is really too bad.

But still... everything else about the first book continues to be great in this book. The strong characterizations, well paced plot, high stakes tension, and exciting action all still work in this book's favor. While it isn't nearly as good as the Hunger Games, I still think it earns a 'mere' five stars while the Hunger Games would be insulted by that few. The only thing that could knock it down a peg to as low as four stars would be the final set of reveals setting up the final book, Mockingjay, and I'm going to generously 'count' those toward the contents of that book instead because they didn't have too much to do with the story of Catching Fire, and are just transitions. I'll save my discussion of my problems with these transitions, and the setup of Mockingjay for when I finish that book.

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