This will not be a popular review. Most people who have read Catching Fire have said it’s even better than The Hunger Games. I’m afraid I disagree. In fact, I was a little bit disappointed.
Why, you ask? Well, I’ve been turning it over for more than a day now, and I think there are several reasons. First one has to do with the tense. (Yes, I’m a writer. I view things from a writing point of view, not just a storytelling one.) Both books are first person present tense, to give them a sense of immediacy. I’m not a big fan of present tense in literature. It sounds awkward unless it’s done spectacularly, at which point I don’t even notice it. The Hunger Games was spectacular. I’ve read it three times – twice in April, once in July – and all three times, I didn’t realize it was in present tense until more than 200 pages in. There’s one sentence that sounds awkward and kind of jarred me all three times. The fact that I forgot and read normally all three times speaks pretty highly about her use of present tense. Unfortunately, Catching Fire sounded awkward for the first 2/3rds of the book. I kept getting caught up in the sentence phrasing. In the last third, it got better, and this has to do with my second complaint about the book, which is:
Timing. The first book takes place over the course of a few weeks. Everything is either immediate or memory. This works well with the present-tense thing. Catching Fire, on the other hand, takes place over the course of six months, with backtracking for the six months before that. There’s a lot of skipping backwards and forwards in time, a lot of awkward leaps and pauses. It felt more like notes than an actual put-together book. Actually, it felt like Collins wasn’t sure where to begin this book, and was floundering a little bit, which is sad. Once she got to the part where she was on a moment-by-moment pacing again, the book improved dramatically. It stopped being so awkward both in timing and in tense, but unfortunately, then it:
Felt repetitive. Like it was riding off the glory of the first book. It felt like a sequel. It didn’t feel enough like a continuation of the first book, but instead like something she put together because the first one is so popular. I know that’s not the case, but that’s what it felt like to me.
Lastly (when it comes to mechanics), the mini-recaps of the first book felt awkward as well. I know I keep saying that word, but that’s really the best way to describe how this book came off to me. Recaps have to be done well, or maybe I’m just spoiled by a couple authors I know who do them well, but recaps generally irritate me in sequels. I understand why they’re there, but these weren’t done well enough for my liking.
Beyond mechanics, I was really annoyed by a couple of characterization things. First, there was too much focus on the love-triangle-that-isn’t-really-a-love-triangle. That plotline got old, fast. Second, Katniss’s character went from a girl who is so paranoid that she’s a little blind to people’s motivations, which was excellent, to a girl who can’t make a correct judgement if (when) her life depended on it. She goes from blind and a bit naive to downright stupid. I don’t like her being stupid. She didn’t feel like herself. I think this little bit offended me more than everything else, because I really connected with Katniss in the first book. We have similar personalities – I’m the sort of person that can become so focused that I don’t see everything around me. But she isn’t blind in this book, she’s dumb. And needlessly dumb. That saddened me.
Now, I’ve laid out all the things I didn’t like, but I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t like this book at all. I don’t think it was anywhere near as good as The Hunger Games, but it was still good. I was still captivated and didn’t want to put the book down, especially in that last third when the pacing improved. I really liked that it explored the idea of what happens to victor tributes after they go home, how their lives change (think about the way people’s lives change after winning the lottery, only that lottery was pretty brutal). The characterization of everyone except Katniss was well done. I liked the build up to the next installment. At the end of The Hunger Games, I actually liked the idea of it being a standalone work with an ambiguous end. I would have preferred no sequel. Of course I’m in the extreme minority here – I only know one other person who feels this way – but that’s how I felt. The book didn’t feel like it led toward a sequel, and hence Catching Fire feels like merely a bridge between two books in a series. It feels trapped out of time a bit, rushing forward, getting in all the plot points without spending too much time on them, that sort of thing. I wish some parts were expanded, others ignored, and most of all, that the timing was different.
This book could have been great, but it wasn’t. Not for me. It fell flat. I do plan to read it again and get a better feel for it, but I don’t think it will make my top ten list of the year.
So I ask, very politely, to please excuse my minority opinion here. Many, many other people love this book and think it’s even better than the first, so you shouldn’t trust my judgement. It’s a book you should try out on your own.
Revisited summer 2010: [Spoilers] This is my fourth read of The Hunger Games. I read it first for readathon in April ’09, right in the middle of the night, so I read it a second time that week to make sure I remembered all the details properly. I then reread it closer to the Catching Fire release in 2009.
Fourth time through, I love this book just as much as I loved it the first three. The same sections made me cry, especially when District 11 sends the bread to Katniss and she thanks them aloud. That’s when my grief for Rue swells up and spills out. I love that the book is in present tense but doesn’t feel awkward. I love that even in all the violence and pain, nothing feels gratuitous or written for shock.
Most of all, I love Katniss. She is so strong, so brave, so determined, and yet at the same time, because she’s been forced to focus her vision into the tunnel of survival, she’s so blind. It’s the perfect character flaw. Her blindness makes her endearing, and makes me want to root for her. I love that in everything she does, she never realizes that those around her aren’t just like her. That not everyone is playing a game or planning a strategy. She expects them to behave the same way she does, because to her, that’s what survival is all about. Those who have a strategy and a plan, she understands. Those who are selfless, like Peeta, she misjudges. It’s the perfect balance.
I can’t sing this book’s praises enough. Even after four times, it’s just as wonderful.
I have no expectations for Mockingjay, really, though I have this small hope that I’ll find out Cinna is still alive, even if he’s had his tongue cut out. This series isn’t like with Harry Potter, where I spent hours trying to figure out what was going to happen in the next book. I’ve never tried to look forward. Instead, I’m just looking forward to the ride! The only thing that I hope will be resolved is the love triangle.
Peeta vs Gale
This, of course, is the big war going on all over the blogosphere. Which boy will Katniss end up with, Peeta or Gale? People who love Peeta are adamantly anti-Gale, and vice versa, so I thought I’d give my thoughts on the two boys.
[fyi I wrote this whole part of the post prior to rereading Catching Fire. My feelings against Gale have intensified since then, but are essentially the same.]
Peeta: He’s kind, thoughtful, protective, and desperately in love with Katniss. Some people see him as manipulative, but I disagree with that. I tried to read that into his character during my fourth read of the first book, and I just can’t. Everything he does is not for his own survival, but for hers.
Having said that, I don’t think he deserves Katniss. Don’t get me wrong – I love Katniss, but she has never been able to separate out in her head the strategy she thought Peeta was using and the truth about his feelings. Their love-act is completely wrapped up in the games, something she would rather forget. They would have been good together under other circumstances. His kindness and gentleness would be a perfect compliment to her toughness and intensity. But not when they were thrown in together that way.
Gale: He’s a lot like Katniss – angry, stubborn, foolhardy, focused, and the consummate survivor. The two have known each other for years and have become so close as hunting partners that they can almost read each other’s minds. Gale is also jealous, possessive, controlling, and judgmental. I get the impression that if Katniss chooses someone other than him, he’ll refuse to ever have anything to do with her again, and to me, that is not love. I don’t believe Gale loves her at all. He wants her, but he doesn’t love her.
Gale is far more like a sibling than he is like a boyfriend, and if he and Katniss were to get together, their relationship would be a disaster. They are both too stubborn and alike. No one would give, and the relationship – and therefore the friendship – would rip into shreds. Furthermore, anyone who acts that jealous and possessive towards another person is someone I regard as dangerous. I could easily see Gale turning into a wife-beater in the future. He and Katniss would be better off remaining friends, assuming he would even deign to be her friend if she chooses someone else.
Comparison: The difference between the two guys to me is this: Gale would protect Katniss only if he knows she will stay with him, whereas Peeta would protect her no matter what. Gale thinks about himself more than he thinks about Katniss. Peeta always thinks of Katniss first. His love for her is unconditional, which is the only kind of love that’s worth having.
But even saying that, I don’t think Katniss should end up with Peeta. If she has to end up with one of them, I’d much prefer Peeta over Gale. But Katniss has been very clear through both books on this subject: she doesn’t want to get into a relationship. She definitely doesn’t want to get married and have kids! I hope so much that Katniss sticks with this decision in Mockingjay. The wavering in Catching Fire drove me crazy because Katniss has made it clear she’s not in love with either guy. She regards Gale as her brother, and his romantic feelings toward her confuse her. Her relationship with Peeta is all mixed up with the games and is very confusing as well. What Katniss needs is to grow up and be alone, unless and until she meets someone who makes her change her mind about marriage. Neither Gale nor Peeta can do that.
I am 100% Team Katniss!