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The Review Man

Formerly of Goodreads, now of both words, in the coming times only here?

Currently reading

Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals
Robert M. Pirsig
Simulacra and Simulation (The Body, In Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism)
Jean Baudrillard, Sheila Faria Glaser
Leaven of Malice
Robertson Davies
The Salterton Trilogy
Robertson Davies
Effi Briest (Penguin Classics)
Theodor Fontane
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
Nicholas Ostler
Cases And Materials On The Law Of Torts
Robert M. Solomon
Public Law : Cases Materials and Commentary
Philip Bryden, Craik, Neil, Craig Forcese, Forcese, Craig
A Property Law Reader
Bruce H. Ziff

Return of the Jedi is the worst film in the Star Wars original trilogy for several reasons, one being that its conclusion is nearly identical to the ending of A New Hope. Despite new characters and different circumstances, the Rebels still blow up a Death Star and then there's a huge melancholy-twinged reunion. Change the setting a bit and voila, you've got Catching Fire.

Catching Fire really is a sequel in the Hollywood sense of the word. The Hunger Games are apparently too clever a plot device to be used only once; this time they're bigger and better—the tributes are culled from a sort of Hunger Games Best-Of list, the Arena is diabolically clever, and the stakes seem a whole lot higher given Peeta and Katniss' relationship status—but they're still Hunger Games. Not even these new bells and whistles really manage to ratchet up the stakes; in an amateurish move, Collins telegraphs the novel's conclusion by page 150. And therein lies Catching Fire's central problem.

Character development is still its shaky self here. (It's one thing I expect to remain constant in Collins' writing, an unfortunate irony.) Catching Fire begins with a protracted District 12 sequence (is there some rule that Katniss must begin every novel there?) that revisits character motivations instead of building upon them. Katniss is depressed due to her situation with Peeta, who basically refuses to talk to her. It's no surprise that Katniss decides to visit her old hunting haunt with Gale—what better way for Collins to up the romantic ante? Unfortunately, since Collins didn't bother to develop Gale's character in the first novel, it's an ultimately meaningless move. Gale soon disappears from Catching Fire too, so don't expect anything further. (Someone ought to count how many times the name Gale shows up in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.) Peeta steals a disproportionate amount of screen time, but most of it is obscured by Katniss' awkward and confusing first-person narration. It's hard to believe that after all this time, she still doesn't know whether she likes or hates him. As a result, Peeta seems distant and stoic. I'm sure there's a thematic reason for this; just as Peeta is obscured, so is Haymith's plan kept hidden from Katniss until the right moment. All the same, this theme of duplicity and manipulation, while often interesting in literature, does not make for exciting or compelling reading when it is told from the perspective of a moody teenage narrator.

If The Hunger Games' treatment of the Capitol and President Snow piqued your interest (as it did mine), prepare to be disappointed here: we don't learn much new about the Capitol in Catching Fire. For some reason (we never learn why), President Snow is worried that Katniss will become a symbol of rebel defiance to the people of Panem. Because she won the Hunger Games? So have 73 other people. Because she threatened to kill herself for love? Can't be the first time a hopeless romantic put on a show for the Capitol. Katniss does end up becoming such a symbol, confirming Snow's fears, but that's only because Collins as Author wills it to be so. If Catching Fire took place in the real world, would the country so unanimously rally around a 17-year-old lovestruck girl? At any rate, Snow is pure stock-villain evil in Catching Fire, and we'll have to wait until Mockingjay before we learn anything of importance about him.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the real problem is the ending, although Collins doesn't do herself any favours in the set-up. We've already seen Katniss and Peeta both miraculously survive one round of the Hunger Games. So when it's time for Round 2, we can be pretty sure that the Capitol won't let them both win again. But there's no way Collins will kill Katniss (the first-person narration is a dead giveaway), and killing Peeta would remove the only major male character from the equation. It's then obvious that Collins is planning some major plot twist. What are the options? Either Collins kills Peeta anyway (which would cripple the rest of the trilogy and likely anger 95% of her fans) or the Games somehow get interrupted and the two heroes are saved by one big Deus Ex Survival Mechanism. And so when Katniss and Peeta destroy that force field halfway through the book, the attentive reader realizes that the ending is carved into stone. Although it's an emotional move by Collins, reviving the Hunger Games as a major plot point forces her to write herself into a corner. Consequently, the ending is predicatble, and it does an equally predictable job of setting up the third book in the series, Mockingjay. (Katniss working with the rebels to fight the Capitol? Doesn't remind you of, say, Return of the Jedi, or any other epic trilogy for that matter, does it?)

Catching Fire is a weak sequel in nearly all senses. It does little to expand on Peeta–Katniss romantic and sexual tension, it doesn't even attempt to address the love triangle, it reuses plot sequences from the first novel, and even new plot developments don't stop Collins from writing a boring conclusion. Under the direction of a competent author, Catching Fire, and in turn Mockingjay, might have been able to stay afloat. As it is, however, we'll have to settle for Collins' half-finished work. I suppose it could have been worse, but apparently Collins saves that for last...