Note: This review contains spoilers. I would also expect any potential comments to contain spoilers as well. Readers wishing to avoid spoilers will want to skip this. But for the people who’ve already read the book, as well as the spoiler-loving seekers, come on in. Let’s discuss.
Dear Ms. Collins,
When The Hunger Games came out two years ago, I initially dismissed it as a clone of Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. I read that book already. Why do I need to read an Americanized version of it? But I’m glad I worked past my first impression and gave your book a chance because similarities aside, I ended up loving it. Catching Fire was released a year later and while it didn’t quite leave the same impact as the first book, I enjoyed it and grew to appreciate it more on subsequent rereads. Which brings us to Mockingjay, the conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy and easily one of the most anticipated books since Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn.
First, a refresher to bring newer readers up to speed. The Hunger Games trilogy is set in Panem, a dystopian, post-apocalyptic North America consisting of a Capitol wielding totalitarian control over twelve Districts. In the past, there used to be thirteen Districts but a rebellion against the Capitol resulted in the annihilation of the thirteenth and the creation of the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are a televised event in which each District sends one boy and one girl to an arena where they kill each other until one remains. In The Hunger Games, we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen, a girl who goes to the Games as District 12’s Tribute in place of her younger sister whose name was originally drawn. Katniss — along with her fellow Tribute, Peeta Mellark — manages to win the Games through sheer survival instinct and an engineered romance geared to pull the audience’s heartstrings. But while Katniss saw it as nothing more than a means to bring the two of them home, Peeta viewed it as something more. In Catching Fire, we learn the Capitol’s President Snow is enraged because Katniss managed to outwit them by ensuring an unprecedented two Victors, an act of defiance that fans civil unrest throughout Panem. As punishment, for the Quarter Quell — a sort of uber-Hunger Games held every 25 years — the Tributes are reaped from the existing pool of Victors. Because Katniss is the only living female Victor from District 12, she is guaranteed a spot and sent back to the arena.
Catching Fire ends with Katniss, along with two other Tributes, sex symbol Finnick Odair and quirky genius BeeTee, being broken out of the arena and brought to District 13, whose reports of having been destroyed were greatly exaggerated. Unfortunately, Peeta, as well as another Tribute, Johanna Mason, were left behind, thus subjecting them to the Capitol’s tender mercies. By which I mean mind-breaking torture. We also learned that for Katniss’s unwitting instigation of the rebellion against the Capitol, District 12 was destroyed.
Mockingjay opens with Katniss recovering from the physical and mental trauma caused by the arena breakout and its subsequent repercussions. But the rebellion waits for no one, and Katniss must step into the role foisted upon her once again. The rebellion needs their living symbol out and about, front and center — to keep morale up within the resistance and to show the Capitol that they will not lose. When initial plans to use Katniss in scripted television spots tailored to bolster rebellion hopes fail, she is then sent onto the battlefield, traveling from wartorn District to ravaged District with a television crew in tow. It’s not the safest place for the rebellion’s walking symbol, but it’s where she’s best suited and it takes her mind off Peeta’s fate.
Although most of District 12’s residents died in the bombings that wiped out their home, the survivors are taken in by District 13. This isn’t out of the kindness of their hearts or the District’s President Coin, however. While District 13’s underground bunkers protected them from the Capitol’s assault 75 years ago, it could not protect them from smallpox and the plague wiped out a good chunk of their population. The influx of District 12 refugees introduces variety into their gene pool. This speaks volumes about District 13’s mentality: everything is controlled right down to how many calories a person can consume in one day. If the Capitol controls through fear and deprivation, District 13’s residents are controlled through micromanagement. They even have daily schedules tattooed on their skin every morning, giving each person a strict agenda to follow. It’s a life but I wouldn’t call it freedom.
Now instead of simply trying to survive the arena, Katniss must survive a war, not only with her body intact but her mind as well. President Snow has every intention of breaking Katniss, and Peeta offers the perfect avenue. In addition, she must embrace the Mockingjay persona pushed upon her while also maneuvering the unexpected complication of having a District leader who by all accounts should be an ally but who instead views Katniss as a threat to be tolerated only until her job is done, after which she becomes a threat to be eliminated immediately.
One of the things I regret as a reader is the risk of high expectations. I know this is something that has burned me in the past and in fact, was part of the reason why I wasn’t so enthused by Catching Fire when I read it for the first time. It’s so difficult for a book to live up to those expectations. But what’s even harder is when I, as a reader, expect one kind of narrative but the author proceeds to deliver something else.
I anticipated the story arc of the Hunger Games trilogy to be one in which Katniss gains agency and freedom. In The Hunger Games, she’s a pawn of the Capitol, a Tribute participating in a televised bloodbath for the entertainment of some people and for the despair of others. In Catching Fire, she’s caught between being a pawn of the Capitol by being a Tribute once more and being a pawn of the rebellion by being their Mockingjay. My expectation of Mockingjay was that Katniss would begin a pawn of the rebellion and fight her way out of that role. This never happens. Katniss remains a pawn until the end. Even in the climactic act, which should have been emblematic of her reaching autonomy, Katniss was driven to it, reacting to her circumstances. Perhaps we are meant to view it as a decision reached through calculated thinking, but I was never convinced.
Instead Mockingjay gives us a story that is not about a girl growing from being a pawn to being an independent figure with agency but rather it is about war, its effects upon the innocent, and most especially its effects upon the soldiers it uses and burns through. In the opening pages of Mockingjay, Katniss is recovering from a mental breakdown, weaning herself off the drugs that have been sedating her. She spends the majority of the book swinging back and forth from almost normalcy to breaking apart once again. Finnick is a wrecked mess who wanders around in a hospital gown and his underwear. When Peeta is finally rescued, he’s been brainwashed and has trouble differentiating between his real memories and those implanted by the Capitol. In the end, Mockingjay is a story about people broken by war, PTSD survivors and shell-shocked soldiers.
When combined with a strong tone shift, as I considered the previous two books to be more action-adventure survival narratives whereas this is a more introspective narrative, the book becomes a bleak, grinding read. I do believe this was intentional on your part, to depict the true horrors of war. But it can be tough for a reader who comes into this book expecting something more like the previous books.
As for the question of Peeta versus Gale, I admit I haven’t been interested in that aspect since Catching Fire when it became apparent to me that the final choice would be Peeta. That said, even though Katniss does end up with Peeta, I have a difficult time calling it a happy ending because that’s exactly what happens: Katniss ends up with Peeta. She doesn’t really choose him because circumstances made it so that an ending with Gale would be near impossible. Again, I do think the ending is realistic when viewed as that of a conclusion to a war narrative — existing and living on as best you can in the aftermath, finding your peace and healing, but it might not be exactly what the most ardent of Peeta proponents were expecting.
As for Gale, I have nothing but sympathies for the Gale supporters. He does finally have more page time in Mockingjay but his portrayal here may be off-putting to his fans. I don’t think his actions were unexpected — in fact, I expected his rage and bloodthirstiness — but I do think his motivations were underdeveloped, mostly because he had such little page time in previous installments. I know how readers can sometimes fill in the details left vague by the narrative. I’ve done this myself. I think that sharp contrast between vagueness to detailed presence can be very jarring here.
And finally, while I realize these are odd comments to make about a trilogy whose premise is essentially a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies, there is violence in the book that readers may not be able to stomach. Wartime violence is never pretty and Mockingjay captures that extremely well, but I suspect it may exceed some readers’ tolerances. It is a different sort of violence than what we glimpsed in Hunger Games and Catching Fire. We go from violence committed to survive to random and senseless violence we often see in war. In addition, there is a scene towards the end of the book involving child hostages that many readers may find objectionable whether or not they dislike fictional violence towards children. I realize the violence was depicted to show how horrifying war is, but perhaps amount of violence was more than necessary.
Despite all this, I don’t think Mockingjay is a bad book. I think it had a specific goal in mind and from an objective point of view, I think it succeeded. But I am not an objective reader and from an honest standpoint, I will say that I did not like this book. I did not hate it and I don’t regret reading it, but I have no intention of ever reading it again. If I want to think about the horrors of war and its aftermath, I only need to wake up and go to work every morning. Others may denigrate me for this choice, but this is not why I read. I read to escape.
Assigning this book a grade is very difficult because I have such a split mind about it. Objectively, I think it is an excellent book, gripping and realistic. I think it accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. But it’s not the story I expected and it is the not the story I wanted to read. These two reactions are irreconcilable and as far as I can tell, will remain that way. So balancing out those two very strong opposing reactions, I can only give it a C.