(Science Fiction, Dystopian Future, Audiobook, YA)
Grade: Β — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. Also, to avoid bias, the highest grade I’ll give a book by someone I know and like.
Mocking Jay is the final installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, and serves as a brilliant conclusion to this series. It improves greatly on the second novel, playing on the dark nature of both the dystopia of Panem while exploring the darker side of revolutionary movements. Indeed, rather than take the easy, overdone and romantic “Freedom Fighters to the rescue approach,” Collins portrays a realistic and complex political network that goes to show that when properly written, a genre book can be as solid a contribution to literature as any other.
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 that fight in a wilderness arena to the death. At this point in the story, general discontent and oppression have built up to a boiling point and conflict, if not outright revolution, is underway.
There seem to be two camps when it comes to the Hunger Games series: those who love Catching Fire and are disappointed with Mockingjay, and those who found Catching Fire a bit lackluster and love Mockingjay. I am definitely of the latter camp.
As I pointed out in my review of the second installment (http://wp.me/pWa2h-zL) in the series, I found Catching Fire had some admirable bits, but that it took a good story and crammed it into a slightly formulaic response to the first novel’s success. What was more, I felt that Katniss seemed a bit simpleminded in that book, obtusely unaware of the signs of conspiracy and rebellion around her. While Catching Fire did provide us with a much fuller view of the world of Panem, and more fully developed the personal relationships created in the first book (Oh, yes and not just the romantic ones – those with everyone around her… very well done), it also forced Katniss back into an arena in a manner that seemed a bit contrived. Not that she ended back in the arena, but that nobody informed her of what other plots and conspiracies were going on around her. Given the nature of what she was up against, it seems a little unrealistic.
In Mockingjay, however, we see a really solid return to form. The increased complexity of conspiracies and questionable loyalties all fit seamlessly into the plot. Though it drew a very dark reality for Katniss to live in, that is the nature of revolutions and Collins did not shy from it.
Picking up from where the previous novel left off, we return to Katniss as she finds herself in the rebel stronghold recovering from the events of the last book (well, technically the last two books). As she recovers, she becomes fully involved in the growing rebellion, not as a rebel leader (the way that so many authors would have played it), but as a Rebel figurehead – a poster girl for the war against the Capitol. This is what I loved about the book more than anything else.
A teenage girl who rose to prominence due to her ability to stay alive in an arena and unwillingness to give in to the capital would not become a leader in a Revolutionary movement. She wouldn’t even become the leader of an elite squad of fighters that somehow also ends up involved in making key political and/or military decisions (the way some stories would have it). What she could become, however, is a poster girl for the cause and that would put her both in filmable front line action AND in the middle of political debates – though not always as the most informed person in the room.
Indeed, one element I loved about this book is that it’s not just the story of a struggle against a totalitarian state, but the story of the struggle within the rebel forces. Here, Collins shows a very realistic representation of revolution – each faction within the rebel forces have their own agenda. There are Thirteen districts after all, and each has its own relationship with the Capital. Some rebel, some don’t, some want one thing after the war, some want things totally differently. This is brilliantly complex and realistic.
After all, in the real world rebel and resistance groups are not made up of one set of people with one set of goals. Look at Egypt over the past few years and Syria today. There are factions, each with their own agenda; groups that may be allied against a common enemy today, but may well point guns at each other tomorrow. Heck, you can even see this sort of thing in the American Revolution of 1776.
Mockingjay throws Katniss right into the heart of the complex politics of a revolution, and does so without pulling punches – because she become part of a war of propaganda. This works brilliantly within the story because it allow Collins to use the kind of Gladiatorial combat that is the center of much of the first two novels in a real-war scenario. Why would anyone use a bow and arrow in a gun fight? Because it would play well on TV to the audiences who were inspired to revolution when they saw her use those weapons in the Arena.
Yet, this whole propaganda scenario also gives us a reason to have Katniss meet with the leaders of the rebellion and become aware of their own machinations. It gives her a certain power, of course, and creates reasons for her to wonder if the rebels are, in fact, any better than President Snow. It allows her to question the motives behind the secret powers that are backing the revolution: are they just out to exploit the Districts in a different way? If so, what role is she playing in that horror, and worse, what role are her friends and “lovers” playing?
This is why I loved this book. Katniss sees and faces the real cost of revolution throughout the tale, and it ain’t pretty. What is more, she sees the potential that the world she is fighting for may not end up to be any better than the one she is fighting against.
To this end, there are no clear good guys and bad guys. This is a book of shades of grey worthy of any novel aimed at any reader, and this is why some people dislike it (or at least, don’t like it as much). There are no easy answers or whole-hearted victories in the book. It is a dark book with costs for every victory. It does not turn a teenaged girl into a super-hero Savior, but keeps in the kind of a role that she would more realistically see.
Indeed, this is one of the key areas of complaint that is often aimed at the book. It ends realistically – not romantically. If you’re looking for Katniss to face the dread villain in a face to face fight at the end and lead a happy suburban life afterwards – put down the Hunger Games and go read Harry Potter. Having said that, I can see why some people are disappointed with the narrative turns at the end, but for me, they balanced story telling with reality in a very nice manner.
Like the first book (and less so the second), this novel did not condescend to its readers because they are YA. That makes it brilliant for anyone regardless of their age or gender.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
As with the previous volume, this book was well narrated by Carolyn McCormick for Scholastic Audio. While her voice remains a bit mature in its nature for a first person narrated by a teenager, Carolyn McCormick does am excellent job and in this book, the voice of a woman fit better than the last.
 No I’m Spartacus! Of course history’s favorite Gladiator didn’t lead a rebellion of everyday men and women, he led a rebellion of Gladiators and other slaves – one that was not so much planned as just kind of happened.
 Key start of the Theme to Star Wars….
 Ever hear of Pennamite–Yankee War? It may be a footnote to history that most people who live in the Susquehanna Valley never heard of, but at the time was a major factor in Colonial to early American politics.
 Admittedly, this ends up not being quite believable when Katniss comes across some military defenses that are based on Arena like settings – but one can over look that sort of thing. Indeed, Collins subtly suggests that the Arena has been so central to the mindset of the powerful for so long that they can’t help but think in that way… but ask me an a few automated machine guns in those positions would have worked a lot better.
 Love that series too! But it is a fantasy not a Sci-Fi and so follows a different formula.