Thursday, August 29, 2013

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WORTHY!

Note that there's an excellent trivia resource on the Hunger Games wiki.

One of my pet peeves about 1st person PoV novels is that it makes the narrator look really whiny if they complain about anything. This really turned me off in the obnoxious Sookie Harris novels (and explains why I much prefer the TV show since it’s not narrated at all and the TV Sookie is far from being a maiden in distress, especially lately!). Catching Fire begins a little bit like that, but Collins wisely has Katniss work through her issues without having to throw herself on some studly guy to help her. She's visited by president Snow, who smells of roses and blood, and he's clearly pissed at her. He tells her she doesn’t have to convince anyone that she's honestly in love with Peeta - anyone but him that is, and if she fails, the consequences will be dire.

This same strategy I think fails somewhat in the sequel, Mockingjay because it becomes too much to read. This is a serious problem with 1st person PoV novels, and one of several reasons I dislike them so much. Mockingjay was a tough sell, despite The Hunger Games being a runaway best seller. The reason for this was Collins' problem of how to tell the same story twice and get away with it. Clearly she succeeded, adding enough twists and unexpected turns to keep it fresh, but the first part of the book was not so successful IMO. It was dragging and slow, but it was necessary because the ground had to be laid for all that comes afterwards. I can't help but wonder how I would have done it had I been trying to sell it, and I doubt I would have brought it off as well as Collins did, so I can't mark her down for that!

Before Katniss has even begun to get settled back into her life (not that she ever can return to what she was, what she had) Katniss and Peeta (seriously? Peeta?) are whisked (yes indeed, whisked they are, and no other word will do) into the traditional Hunger Games winner's district tour. Their first stop is District 11, and Peeta really stirs up trouble (and quite unintentionally) when he pledges one month's victor winnings every year for his lifetime to the families of the two District 11 tributes (Thresh and Rue) who died in the recent games. Katniss feels she has to say something about Rue and Thresh's sacrifice, and this stirs the crowd even more. One old guy raises the three fingered lip touch salute which Katniss showed everyone during the games after Rue died, and soon everyone in that crowd is doing it, and whistling Rue's four-note Mockingjay tune. This act of solidarity turns quickly into a riot in the square and people die including the old guy who started it.

Let me say a quick word about Collins's use of 'Capitol' to describe the capital of Panem, because I found it unnecessarily confusing, an I have to wonder if Collins herself understands the difference between capital and capitol, since both words derive from the same Latin root, meaning 'head'. I think capitol is a very American word. I don't hear any nation use this outside of the Americas. Capitol refers strictly to a building where the state legislature meets, and perhaps the judicial branch, too (so much for separation!). It doesn't mean the same thing as 'capital', which is the principle city of a nation, the one which is typically the seat government for that nation. In order not to perpetuate the potential confusion and misinformation Collins may have launched by this lax choice of words, I intend to use 'capital' to refer to the principle city of Panem, and only use 'Capitol' when I need to, or when I'm quoting directly from her novels.

President Snow is seething with hatred for Katniss as she arrives in the Capital after this tour, even after they've staged a planned "impromptu" proposal of marriage from Peeta (Peeta? What's a 'Peeta', exactly?!) which Katniss accepts. Snow indicates his grievous displeasure to her and it immediately spills into District 12. He fires the existing head "Peacekeeper" and installs a vicious brute with the absurd name of Romulus Thread. Honestly! That's worse than Peeta which was previously my worst name in the trilogy (did you guess?).

Gale is the first victim. He's whipped almost to death when he's caught trying to sell a poached turkey to the head peacekeeper, not knowing that Thread has replaced the previous guy. Katniss's mom saves Gale's life, but Katniss now realizes two things. She's in love with Gale, and she's trapped into a course of action from which she cannot escape. She had been thinking of running, and taking her family with her, but this nastiness brings it home to her with horrific clarity that she cannot abandon the rest of District 12. She starts thinking then in terms of what she can do to foment an uprising like the one which has spontaneously begun in District 8 (which she only learns of by accident). Haymitch is dismissive of her idea, but she will not shed it.

Katniss and Peeta took part in the 74th Hunger Games, but what she has forgotten with all of her self-obsession and everything else that has distracted her is that this year is the Quarter Quell, a very special games held once every twenty-five years. This pattern was supposedly set in stone many years before, after the war. When President Snow reads the news of this year's tournament, taken from a box of numbered envelopes, the news is as outrageous and it is unprecedented. This year, the tributes are to be selected from all the remaining victors from the districts. Katniss believes this was not set in stone at all. She believes that Snow changed envelope number 75 for no other reason than just to get rid of all the victors (it's not called a quell for nothing!), who are symbols of success and perhaps focal points for rebellion.

Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch are hustled onto the train without even being given a chance to say goodbye this year. On the train journey, they watch tapes of the other games. Why tapes? Given the technology in this world, why tapes? I have no idea why Collins would take this backward step unless she was simply not thinking about what she was doing, which is hard to believe given how much planning she put into this trilogy. And how did they even get the tapes? It makes no sense that the capital, which has here instituted the most evil, vindictive, and vicious of games for this year, would offer any assistance at all to the victors, especially given that their aim is no less than the extermination of the victors, yet they have all the tapes they want, and one of them is Haymitch's 50th Quarter Quell games, where double the number of tributes competed, and Haymitch managed to win.

The death toll in the 75th Hunger Games:
1b Gloss - killed by Katniss
1g Cashmere - killed by Johanna
2b Brutus - killed by Peeta
2g Enobaria - captured by capital
3b Beetee - freed by rebels
3g Wiress - killed by Gloss
4b Finnick - freed by rebels
4g Mags - killed by fog
5b Unnamed - Killed at Cornucopia by Finnick
5g Unnamed - killed by tidal wave or muttation
6b Unnamed ("male morphling") - Killed at Cornucopia by Brutus
6g Unnamed ("female morphling") - killed by muttation
7b Blight - killed in force field collision
7g Johanna - captured by capital
8b Woof - Killed at Cornucopia
8g Cecilia - Killed at Cornucopia
9b Unnamed - Killed at Cornucopia
9g Unnamed - Killed at Cornucopia
10b Unnamed - killed by tidal wave or muttation
10g Unnamed - Killed at Cornucopia
11b Chaff - killed by Brutus
11g Seeder - Killed at Cornucopia
12b Peeta - captured by capital
12g Katniss - freed by rebels

The minute Katniss arrives at the capital there are behaviors which ought to make her suspicious, but as usual she doesn't grasp any of what's going on. She's told to make alliances and this time she tries, but what's actually going on is something much bigger than the games. While Katniss believes she has made a deal with Haymitch to protect Peeta, Peeta, Haymitch, and even some of the other tributes have made an alliance to protect Katniss - to protect the Mockingjay.

And now brief word about biology! Collins has us believe that while the Jabberjays were genetically created by the capital to spy on the rebels, they were left to go wild afterwards. It was expected that they would die out, but they did not. Instead some of them mated with mockingbirds to create the Mockingjay. This is patent bullshit! Jays are in the crow family Corvidae. The Mockingbirds are from a completely different family, the Mimidae. While both of these are Passeriformes, a huge order of birds, they are so far apart on the evolution bush that there is no way they would be likely to even physically mate, let alone have issue from the mating. Humans would have a better chance of success mating with chimpanzees (which is to say: none!) than would birds of two different families, which begs the question as to why Collins chose the jays to begin with!

If she was going for smarts, then another member of the Corvidae family might have been a better choice, although all of the Corvidae family have better than average smarts among birds. If she was going for mimicking, which is ostensibly what the capital was after, then why not select the Mimidae family to begin with? In that way at least you're trying to have members of the same bird family mate. But that's just me.

So let the games begin. This time the tributes rise to the surface surrounded by salt water, itself surrounded by a beach, with the cornucopia close by, but Katniss cannot run as she did before. Instead, she swims to the Cornucopia, and runs into Finnick Odair, who protects her. She agrees to make an alliance with him even though she doesn't trust him, because Haymitch had advised her to do so, but he had failed to give her sufficient information on which to base trust, so she simply doesn't trust him even though she allies herself with him. She ends up with a quartet, the other two being Peeta and Mags - a much older woman. Both of these tributes are from District 4, and it turns out that Mags was Finnick's mentor, so the two of them have a special bond. Finnick won the games when he was only fourteen.

The environment this time is very hot and humid. Beyond the beach lies a jungle. There is no fresh water. As the games progresses, the death toll is far higher than it was in the previous year's games. Every hour they discover that a new terror is unleashed upon them. There is a massive lightning storm beginning with a strike on a huge tree which was close by. They move on form that only to be attacked by a fog the next morning - a fog which is some sort of nerve gas. Mags is lost to the gas because Katniss cannot carry her fast enough. The next day they encounter Johanna Mason, someone who Katniss dislikes intensely, but Johanna weirdly tells Katniss that she saved Beetee and Wiress for her. Katniss has no idea what that means.

It's from Wiress's odd chanting of "tick tock" that Katniss realizes that the arena, smaller than previously and circular, is arranged like a clock, divided into twelve segments, each of which spawns a horror on the turn of the hour, and the horrors rotate clockwise. With this in mind, and knowing they can tap water from the trees by means of a spile. which Haymitch sent to them, they start to plan on beating the alliance arrayed against them. Beetee is carrying a spool of wire, and his plan is to hook it to the tree that gets struck when the lightning starts, and run the wire down to the ocean which will electrocute their competitors.

The plan fails when Brutus and his allies attack Johanna and Katniss. Katniss is freaked out when Johanna appears to attack her and then removes the tracking device from her arm, before turning to engage the attackers. Soon Finnick comes charging past to enter the fray. Katniss abandons the two of them and charges back up to the arena wall to find Peeta. She realizes that she can uses Beetee's wire to short-out the arena wall by attaching it to an arrow and firing the arrow into a weak spot which she had learned of during training. This done, she finds herself snatched up by a hovercraft, but the craft contains Haymitch and Plutarch (seriously?), this year's games controller who had oddly interacted with Katniss some time before, during the victor's tour of the districts.

Katniss wants them to get Peeta, but they refuse, and she passes out, only to awaken later to discover that she's being taken to District 13 - the supposedly dead district, which is alive and well. Both Peeta and Johanna have been captured by the capital, and District 12 has been bombed out of existence.