This young-adult trilogy is set on the planet New World, where settlers from Old World (presumably Earth) headed looking for a new start after ruining their original home. The initial landing went badly, resulting in a native species of intelligent beings (known as the Spackle) being slaughtered and then subdued as slaves, all the men being infected with a virus that makes every inner thought audible to everyone (the Noise), and all the women being killed in one of the original settlements, Prentisstown.
Out of Prentisstown comes Todd, a young teen who is forced to flee when the mayor, who is plotting a war to take over the planet, turns against him. He soon meets up with young Viola, a girl who crash-landed with a scout ship from an incoming group of new settlers. Todd and Viola travel across the planet to try to warn the incoming settlers before Mayor Prentiss can start his war. Along the way, they encounter other settlers from other towns, including a renowned woman healer who sets herself up as the leader of an armed resistance to now-President Prentiss.
I thought this trilogy (plus The New World, the very slight short story that showcases Viola’s life on the scout ship just before it lands) was really well done. The writing is certainly on a young-adult level (sensible since all three novels are narrated in turns by Todd and Viola), but the themes that it tackles are far from simplistic: What is war? Is it ever OK to kill someone? Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it possible to do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Is redemption ever really possible? Time and again I braced myself for a pat answer, and time and again I was pleasantly surprised. Ness takes pains to present the good and bad sides of both heroes and villains, to the point where readers will find themselves questioning which is which.
Partway through the series, I expressed the opinion that this is a better YA trilogy than The Hunger Games. After finishing the third book, I stand by that opinion. While I enjoyed both series quite a bit, I think Ness does a better job of presenting and exploring the larger themes that lie behind the narrative.
A friend recommended these to me, and I ended up listening to the audiobooks narrated by Carolyn McCormick. I found the first book, The Hunger Games to be a very interesting examination of a dystopia where our current obsession with reality television has degenerated to the point of the government staging fights to the death among groups of teenagers, one boy and one girl from each of the 12 “districts” in the country of Panam, which is what remains of the United States. The lead character, a teenage girl named Katniss, was sympathetic and believable, and the resolution was satisfying if a bit abrupt.
Catching Fire picks up Katniss’ story back in District 12, where she learns her actions at the end of The Hunger Games have displeased the leaders of Panam. The first half of the book is a drawn-out contrivance that ends with Katniss back in the fighting arena. Despite the fact that the scenes in the Arena were the best and most compelling, it felt like a cheat that Katniss ended up back there. The book would have been more successful had another teen taken her place, I think.
Mockingjay wraps up the trilogy with Katniss as the public face of the districts’ rebellion against the Capitol. It suffers from the complete lack of any Arena scenes (although the fighting in the Capitol comes closest), which were the strongest parts of both Hunger Games and Catching Fire. Ultimately, not only is Katniss still the focus despite being on the outskirts of the action for most of the book, the civil war seems much too easily won to be believable. Both of these things are significant weaknesses that lead Mockingjay to be the weakest book of the three.
It’s difficult for me to give these books a fair review, since they were written for a young adult audience, and my young-adult days are all too far behind me. Still, I found them to be mostly worthwhile reads, and Collins does have some interesting points to make regarding consumer culture and popular media, although both are themes I would have loved to see her explore further. I think Collins’ biggest mistake was the decision to stick with Katniss as the narrator of all three books. Shifting focus to other characters in the second and third books, while still keeping Katniss in the picture, would have improved the series quite a bit.