When I picked up THE HUNGER GAMES, it immediately became "The Book" that I recommended to everyone who would listen. I stayed up until the wee hours every night to see what happened next. I blogged about it. I named a stray kitten "Rue." Not surprisingly, when I got my greedy hands on a copy of its sequel, CATCHING FIRE, I practically tore off the cover in my eagerness to dive in. Happily, the second installment of this compelling series did not disappoint. Now the only problem is waiting for the third book in this exciting trilogy.
CATCHING FIRE picks up six months after Kat and Peeta won the Hunger Games. Despite being a national hero and having the ability to provide a nice house and plenty of food for her family, Kat is still worried. She managed to win the Hunger Games, despite the Panem government's plans. Her behavior is viewed by the evil President Snow as defiance, which is never tolerated. She is a well-known, popular figure, so the president will not kill her outright, but Kat lives in fear that at any moment, she and those she loves could be punished for her actions.
Soon Kat learns that her performance in the Hunger Games arena had far-reaching consequences. In beating the government at its own game the previous year, Kat unintentionally demonstrated that the all-powerful President Snow is not quite so all-powerful. Now President Snow expects Kat to prove that she is a loyal citizen who doesn't support the anti-government rumblings that are spreading throughout the country. Her support is vital since it was her act of defiance that ignited the rumblings to begin with. And if she doesn't succeed to President Snow's satisfaction, her family and friends will pay the price.
CATCHING FIRE is a gripping follow-up to THE HUNGER GAMES. All the same characters are back - with the exception of those who were killed in Book #1, of course. Even more than in THE HUNGER GAMES, Kat is largely clueless about the strategies and plots that are going on around her. At times, this can be trying for the reader because by now she should know that everyone has an agenda, and if you're not directing the game, then you're a pawn. Still, her strength is an extraordinary instinct for survival. It's ironic that the Capitol government which created the Hunger Games and tries so hard to keep its people feeling helpless is also responsible for creating a person like Kat. She gained her skills and toughness by surviving unspeakably brutal conditions.
One key difference between the two books is that in THE HUNGER GAMES, reality TV was painted as a villain. A voyeuristic public's desire to be entertained by the suffering of others forced Hunger Games competitors to behave in inhuman ways. The oppressive government that created the competition was largely an ever-present background threat. In CATCHING FIRE, however, the government's cruelty is front and center as its boot heel presses ever harder on the throats of its people. The role of television and at-home audiences shifts in this book, and they become more of a weapon against the government than against the people.
As much as I enjoyed CATCHING FIRE, there were times, particularly in the first half, that it made me uncomfortable. There are so many parallels between the excesses of Panem's government and those of governments around our modern world. Governments that spy on their own people, starvation caused not by a shortage of food but from corrupt government policies, the impossibly wide divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots," and the helplessness suffered by citizens who believe there's nothing they can do about any of it. As I read, I kept asking myself, "How much will these people tolerate before they put a stop to it?" But then I winced time and again as I was forced to ask, "How much will I?"
CATCHING FIRE feels more serious and less like escapist fiction than THE HUNGER GAMES. It executes its message equally well, though, and the fact that I saw some of its twists coming didn't lessen their impact. Author Suzanne Collins has prepared another treacherous arena for her readers - and, as in THE HUNGER GAMES, only some of the hazards are in the fictional world of Panem.
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