by Suzanne Collins

Cover image

Series: Hunger Games #3
Publisher: Scholastic
Copyright: September 2010
ISBN: 0-439-02351-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 390

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Mockingjay is the third and final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Don't even think about reading it without reading the previous two books, as you would miss the core dynamic of change and growth in the series and have a significantly inferior reading experience. As with Catching Fire, I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but the continued life of some characters is an almost unavoidable spoiler. The short review: I highly recommend the whole series, particularly with this conclusion, and if you want to avoid any spoilers, stop reading here and just read the whole trilogy. Then come back.

I'm going to say up-front that I loved this book (better than any other in the series), but not for being a uniformly excellent book. Rather, I loved it despite several significant problems because it has moments that are simply exceptional. It also attempts a breathtaking risky thematic shift and direction of character development that I was completely not expecting, and largely pulls it off. But more on that in a moment.

Flaws first. Mockingjay, like the whole series, is written in first-person present tense. I haven't commented on that before now because it wasn't bothering me much, but for some reason in this book it became more noticable. I understand why authors use first-person present instead of first-person past: it avoids the memoir effect, where the tense tells the reader that the protagonist survived the story to tell it. But it's such an artificial story-telling tense, and sometimes, as here, it makes me feel like the character is describing their actions in a role-playing game instead of living them. It wasn't a huge problem, but I found it created some artificial distance that I had to read past.

Second, significant suspension of disbelief is required for parts of this book. In Mockingjay, given what we see and what we're now aware of, it's less the overall political structure as some of the details of what the characters run into. I was somewhat hoping that Collins would move entirely beyond the basic structure of the Hunger Games for this book, but she returns to it in an altered form. It works on a metaphorical level, and results in one of my favorite character moments of the book, but the way in which she introduces Games-style obstacles is frankly unbelievable from a practical perspective. There's simply no way that a city would be constructed or run in that fashion. One just has to nod and go along with it for the story.

But what a story, and not the story I was expecting at all.

Mockingjay of course follows up on the cliff-hanger from Catching Fire, although again moves a short distance into the future. Katniss's life and her perception of and interaction with the world has been heavily disrupted again. At first, I thought Collins was setting up a typical climactic story of the primary protagonist coming into her full powers and saving everything. That expectation, coupled with the jarring dislocation that ends Catching Fire and starts this book, left me struggling a bit with the start of this book. But that struggle and dislocation are part of the story, and part of what Collins is constructing is a startlingly deep look at the role of heroes, the meaning of symbols, and the nature of warfare.

This series has, all along, been playing with the intersection of violence, public admiration, audience, and games, but it's been the backdrop of stories of personal survival. Mockingjay makes Katniss more aware of that intersection and hence tackles it more directly while increasing the stakes. One expects defiance and inspiring rhetoric and heroic triumph, but while those play a role here, they're only part, and we also get to see below the surface where those emotions are constructed and manipulated towards other goals. The tension around that manipulation is beautiful: a taut balance between real and artificial, between just causes and disturbing motives, between true agency and being used as someone else's pawn, between scripted and unscripted moments. This is the second book I've read in as many months that takes a much deeper and more nuanced look at the politics of violence and freedom-fighting than the usual triumphalism and says true things in the process. I like this trend and hope it continues.

Mockingjay also directly tackles the ethics of violence, another theme that's been threading through the series to date but which hasn't been at the forefront of the story the way it is here. Collins builds a lovely three-way contrast of attitudes towards violence and willingness to act between three of the characters, and treats each approach with respect and integrity. This is a hard book, much harder than I would have initially expected for young adult marking (and hooray for that), because it doesn't allow easy answers to hard problems. It also directly undermines the lone hero motif. The protagonists don't get to be in charge of everything that happens, but instead have to work at finding ways to be true to themselves within a structure that's always being imposed by one force or another. This is refreshingly clear-eyed, and sets up some emotional climaxes that are far more moving than a simpler treatment would have allowed.

It's also worth noting that violence has consequences in Mockingjay; the horror of children fighting each other that formed the backdrop of the first two books is neither forgotten nor discarded lightly. Collins tries hard, and I think mostly succeeds, at showing from the inside how that violence might affect someone beyond the immediate and leave subtle and lingering scars. It's hard to spread those effects over enough time to show gradual changes and repeated trauma without slowing the story down too much, but while at times this is a slower book than the previous two, I think it finds a good balance.

I'm being elliptical in my descriptions because I don't want to spoil any of the surprises. I guessed the specific details of one climactic action about halfway through the book, but despite that I was caught entirely by surprise by the surrounding emotional context and would want other readers to have the same experience. The ending is hard, painful, and utterly beautiful, and more true than most of the book endings I've read. It was not at all the ending that I expected, but I'm convinced that it's the ending the series needed.

The first two books of this series were good, action-packed stories with a sharp edge of social commentary and analysis below the surface. Mockingjay, despite somewhat more glaring flaws and a slow start, is something more. It's a challenge to the reader: What would you decide? What side would you take? Would you dare to make the same decisions? Is Katniss right? Is it worth it? It's risky, and angry, and scarred, and uncertain, and parts of it hurt like a punch in the gut. I loved it.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-05-10

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