Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins is the exciting sequel to her blockbuster novel, The Hunger Games. While it is a solid, enjoyable read that builds upon the first book in the series, it suffers from ‘Middle-Book-In-A-Trilogy’ syndrome, and as such will only really appeal to those who have already read and enjoyed the first book. Having said that, it does point toward a potentially superb final installment in the Hunger Games trilogy.
Panem (e.g. Bread): A post-apocalyptic dystopian future North America that has been divided into thirteen districts (one of which has apparently been destroyed) dominated by a totalitarian centralized government run from a city located somewhere high in the Rockies. Food is extremely scarce, though this may well be only a tool used by the government to control the populace. Each district has a monolithic economy (coal production, food production, etc.) again presumably enforced in order to control the populace. Yearly gladiatorial games are held using two teenage ‘tributes’ from each district who fight in a wilderness arena to the death.
NOTE – Read The Hunger Games before reading this review – I provide no spoilers for Catching Fire and avoid them as I can for the first book, but there’s only so much I can do when reviewing a sequel that won’t spoil the first book in a series!
Catching Fire picks up a few months after the conclusion of The Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen trying to piece her life together after her traumatic experiences in the arena. In some senses her new life is greatly improved. For the first time she has a wonderful house and more than enough food for herself and her family. Yet, she is suffering from post-traumatic stress (though it’s never called this), her relationships with both Peeta and Gale are strained and confused, and she is struggling to find her place in society.
All of this fades to insignificance, however, when the tyrannical dictator of Panem, President Snow, pays Katniss a personal visit to her new home. There he informs her that if she doesn’t present herself as a dithering love sodden little girl in short order she, her family, her love interests and her District will suffer the consequences. It seems that her choices at the end of the last book have led her to become the poster girl for a potential uprising, and if she doesn’t play ball, the authoritarian government will crush her and all those around her even if they play no part in a rebellion. Let the games begin…
Catching Fire really is the middle book of a series and as such, has neither a beginning nor an end. Indeed, the conclusion of this book is a serial cliffhanger and so one does not really feel any sense of completion at the last page. Yet in some senses, that is not the purpose of this book: its purpose is to build upon the first book, both in background and in stakes, and it does that very well.
In Catching Fire, Collins builds the complexity of the politics and cultures behind her world. As Katniss progresses through the book, it becomes clear that there are wheels within wheels working in the background, even when she is unaware of their presence. Her first conversation with President Snow hints that even he may have things to worry about that go beyond the dark conspiracies of his post-American empire. That is only the start. The web of conspiracies that Katniss finds herself caught in the middle of is built very nicely around her as the plot thickens. What is more, her own character arc grows as do her complex relationships with Peeta and Gale, not to mention her mentor Haymitch. All of which sets us up for a potentially fantastic final installment in the series.
Having said that, there are some elements of this book somewhat disappointed me, either because they seemed in conflict with the characters presented in the first book, or because they strained my suspension of disbelief.
The first element of this book that disappointed me was the overall similarity of some parts of the book to the first volume. Indeed, the second half of the book, while expected, was not all that engaging simply because it retread ground that we had already visited in the first book after opening up so many potentials beyond it. Oh, mind you, there are new dimensions to the second half it that kept me turning the pages, but in one sense, a good part of this book is slightly too similar to its predecessor for my tastes. Having said that, it does seem to be leading up to a very different third volume that I am quite anxious to read.
The second thing that irked me about Catching Fire was the apparent change in Katniss. In The Hunger Games we met a strong, intelligent young woman who saw plots and conspiracies among her colleagues at every turn. In this book, well, she seems so oblivious to the more obvious conspiracies taking place around her that I times I wondered if she were just a bit on the dim side.
Now, admittedly, I write and review espionage thrillers for a living, so I might be a tad better at picking out the subterfuge than a sixteen or so year old girl might be. Then again, this is a girl who survived by dealing in the black market in a totalitarian state. While I could believe that background could make her blind to someone having an obvious crush on her as in the first novel, I just can’t believe she’d be so unaware of the varying subterfuge occurring around her. The people I’ve met who have dealings with the criminal side of life tend to be hyperaware of plots and subterfuge, nearly to the point of paranoia
Then there is the world itself. While this book primarily does a wonderful job of building upon Collins’ dystopian future, it also raised a couple of questions in my mind that broke my suspension of disbelief. The first is tied to population.
Katniss is a resident of District 12, whose primary contribution to the economy is coal. Why the clearly high tech Capitol district needs coal is not discussed, but clearly it is part of the economy. Also clearly, the Capitol restricts the economy of each district to a single product, thus forcing an economic dependence upon the center. While difficult to enforce, such an approach would allow for a relatively strong central control of a society and really work quite well. So far, so good.
Only, you see, in this book, it becomes pretty clear that the town that Katniss lives in, a town where almost everyone knows each other, is the only settlement in District 12. Now, I have no problem with a single large population center being enforced by the government, but how does one mine enough coal to add to an economy in anyway if the population is as small as the one described in this book. Between say, nine and fifteen thousand people? That is a tiny population for an area the size of the entire US Northeast, and considering the descriptions of how Katniss’ interactions and variety of individuals she knows, it is clear that is the population. I mean, we’re talking both New England and the Mid-Atlantic states here. The coal production would be so small as to be insignificant, and the population so small and centralized that it would give no strategic or policing value to the region. So, why have a city there at all? Why not relocate and/or kill off the whole lot of them after their original failed revolution seventy-six years prior?
This then leads to my second strained world concept: are there no other countries in the world? I mean, really. This place is so primed for a revolution, I can’t imagine a foreign state wouldn’t be feeding it. Yet, as far as we know, the only place outside Panem that ever had a population is District 13, now a total wasteland… or is it?
And here we see Collins’ saving grace, for she plants seeds of doubt about what she has already told us about the world. Indeed, the very things that stretched my disbelief are the very things that could play out so brilliantly in book three. After all, what we know about the world is seen through Katniss’ eyes, and she really is just a teenage girl in a society where the general population is kept in the dark. So to that end, the book was very good. It raised the stakes not only in the action of the tale, but also in the telling of that tale. Will Collins pull it off? Will her potential world holes prove to be filled with depth and excitement, or will it fail? I really hope so.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
Scholastic Audio produced an extremely good, highly enjoyable audio book. It has a great flow with no irritating production errors or elements. Well done.
Carolyn McCormick does a very good job of narrating this book, but as noted for The Hunger Games, her voice is a tad mature for a first person present tense narrative of a teenage girl. Carolyn McCormick is obviously fully grown self-confident woman. Even so, McCormick is extremely talented, and does a wonderful job.
 Yes, yes, yes… I am avoiding spoilers here. It’s hard man, I had to let out the fact she and Peeta both lived just to even vaguely review this book… but I won’t spoil how that was managed for anyone who hasn’t read the first yet. Even so, read the first book before reading this review.
 Indeed, some reviewers have critiqued the romantic dithering that occurs in the book, failing to recognize the personal importance of this to Katniss’ character, and that, hey, that is one of the key archetypes (what some people call tropes, but the ancient Greek scholar in me hates the misuse of that term) of the YA Sci-Fi subgenre, and one reason why this gets a Delta not a Gamma.
 I am going to say its for plastics, just because that floats my boat.
 OK. I’d stretch to 20K, but no more. Really, even in a city the size of Eugene Oregon or BinghamtonNY you would get a smaller range of the population known to a single citizen.
 Well, except for Katniss not suspecting more is going on behind the scenes.
- The Hunger Games (www.sophyanempire.wordpress.com)
- (Video) Official Teaser Trailer for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire! (randomizeme.net)
- The Hunger Games Adventures for iOS: Playtime in Panem (reviews.cnet.com)
- Product placement in pictures – The Hunger Games (brandsandfilms.com)
- Catching Fire: Is It November Yet? (emilykazakh.wordpress.com)
- ‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ trailer debuts during MTV Movie Awards (herocomplex.latimes.com)
- ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’: New Picture Reveals Katniss And Prim (screencrave.com)
- Hunger Games: Catching Fire trailer released (guardian.co.uk)
- The Hunger Games – Books 2 & 3 ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay’ (cribbinimelda.wordpress.com)
- Get Your First Look At “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” [Video] (winextra.com)
- A Shot-By-Shot Analysis Of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Trailer (tor.com)