Catching Fire

by Suzanne Collins

Cover image

Series: Hunger Games #2
Publisher: Scholastic
Copyright: September 2009
ISBN: 0-439-02349-1
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 391

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This is the sequel to The Hunger Games and, despite a somewhat awkward recap woven into the beginning of the book, is not a sequel that stands alone. I can't imagine trying to read it without having read the first book of the series.

It's also difficult to review since it builds directly on events of The Hunger Games, and the nature of the first book makes it hard to avoid spoilers when discussing any subsequent books. I'll attempt it regardless, although that may mean being vague. I do have to talk about one element that I suspect everyone expected, but if you want no spoilers at all, you may want to skip this review.

Catching Fire opens six months after the conclusion of the Games and just before the Victory Tour, a tour that the victor in the Games takes of all of the Districts. Katniss (there's your one spoiler) has returned to her life in District 12. It's much easier and more luxurious, but it's still recognizably similar to her previous life. She has no desire to be pulled out of it into the machinations of the Games and the Capitol, but she of course doesn't have a choice, nor is the government through with her or particularly fond of her after the events of the first book. The next Games loom in another six months, during which Katniss is expected to be a mentor and to try to keep another year's tributes alive.

The opening of this book is very awkward, lacking some of the polish and technique that experienced authors bring to the mechanics of building a sequel. Many authors struggle with inserting the necessary recap of the previous book, some worse than Collins does here, but the tone and language also felt a bit forced. Collins continues a first-person mix of internal monologue and clipped description, and it does work once one gets into the story, but I thought the start felt a bit forced and staccato. But this only lasts the first chapter before Collins turns up the intensity and risk and picks up the arc of danger from the first book in earnest.

Unfortunately, the first step of turning up that intensity is introducing a hissable villain. The scene is very dramatic, and emotionally intense for both Katniss and the reader, but the villain is sadly over-the-top (to the point of seeming like he was stolen from a supernatural fantasy, although we do get a barely adequate explanation in the third book). One of the things I liked best about the first book was the degree to which it kept villainy structural instead of giving into the temptation to concentrate it in one person. I found this rather disappointing.

Thankfully, after that, Collins does something interesting structurally. Catching Fire echos the events of The Hunger Games in many respects: the timing is different, and some of the early events are, of course, different, but there are marked parallels. But where before Katniss went in alone and largely ignorant of both broader context of what's happening and what being a tribute will mean, here she has her past experience and a much stronger connection to the larger world. Catching Fire is largely the story of her slow realization of how connected she is, of how the rest of the world touches her and she touches it, competing against her natural instinct to go it alone and be as self-sufficient as possible. Katniss goes through the first book in ignorance with the readers learning alongside her; repeating with experience gives both her and the reader a chance to be more analytical, to be more deliberate, to try to make specific choices instead of reacting on instinct and an internal sense of ethics.

And Katniss struggles with that, in part because Collins does something else noteworthy here. Her evil authoritarian government is not stupid. The evil remains overdone (the whole blood smell and flowers thing struck me as more cartoonish than threatening, akin to white-cat stroking), but one of the questions I had in the first book was why the technology clearly in evidence in the Games wasn't used by the government more in day-to-day life. Catching Fire partly answers that question, plus shows just how difficult it is to resist an authoritarian government in a bit of realism that's often lacking in this sort of story. That does mean that both Katniss and the reader are left in a helpless holding pattern at times, but Collins maintains her excellent sense of pacing and swept me right through the story. I finished it in two days and three sittings.

I had a few more minor problems with this book: the concentration of villainy, some places where the language wasn't as polished as it could have been, and a few places where Collins's descriptions of Katniss's internal emotional state felt heavy-handed. But the main problem that I had with it was the ending. To warn, it is a cliffhanger, even more so than the ending of the first book. But, beyond that, I didn't like the tone of it at all. This is the sort of story where rooting for Katniss and being entirely on her side is much of the enjoyment of the book, so having her seem stupid (and even hysterical) grated on me badly. There's also a bit too much deus ex machina and way too much loss of agency. Both of these are realistic to be sure, but I didn't think sufficient groundwork was laid for the ending to come naturally out of the story. It left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly since up to that point I loved the climax of the book.

(I have subsequently read the third book, which redeems the ending to a great extent. But one doesn't have that experience at the end of the second book, so I'll comment on that in the later review.)

But, despite the ending and the other flaws, I liked this book. I would have liked it even more with a slightly different ending, but it's a worthy sequel. It is the middle book of a trilogy, but Collins avoids some of the middle-book feel via the repetition with experience structure and with excellent pacing. Collins expands the scope of the story and adds complexity without turning the evil government into too much of a cliche, and she left me eager to start the final book. I recommend it to anyone who liked The Hunger Games.

Followed by Mockingjay.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-04-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21