Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

“If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely. Never speak of them. Pretend they were nothing but a bad dream. But the Victory Tour makes that impossible. Strategically placed almost midway between the annual Games, it is the Capitol’s way of keeping the horror fresh and immediate. Not only are we in the districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capitol’s power each year, we are forced to celebrate it. And this year, I am one of the stars of the show. I will have to travel from district to district to stand before the cheering crowds who secretly loathe me, to look down into the faces of the families whose children I have killed…”

Months have passed since Katniss and Peeta cheated the odds and scored a surprise and subversive victory in the 74th Hunger Games. Now, faced with the obligatory Victory Tour and the need to once more impersonate a perfect couple, Katniss longs for the obscurity and freedom of her previous life. Though it is no longer a financial necessity, she continues to hunt outside the electrified fence and frequent the dodgy Hob. She regularly visits her old home, and the family of an old friend. It may not be perfect, but at least it is her life. For now.

One night, however, Katniss returns home to a surprise visit from the sinister President Snow who reveals that her little act of rebellion, her little victory over the Gamemakers, has had wider implications than she could have predicted. The situation is simple: the Victory Tour goes smoothly or she will be in trouble. For everyone knows that acts of rebellion, even ones solely designed to stay alive, rarely escape punishment in Panem. The effect of challenging an omnipotent state and winning, in any context, is to question the very existence of that power.Catching Fire quickly proves an appropriate title as Katniss and Peeta struggle valiantly to save their lives and quench the flames that their actions have ignited. What they see on tour shows just how far things have progressed. There are rumours of a secret district, messages passed around in baked loaves of bread, simple acts of defiance. Katniss’s Mockingjay pin increasingly comes to inspire and encapsulate the rising unease. And all the while President Snow waits in the background, smelling of blood and roses, embodying the omnipresence of the state, the ability to destroy with just a nod. Now seventeen, and in the middle of an awkward love triangle she has no interest in being part of, Katniss is propelled into a world of adult games for adult stakes. The violence may be less physical and imminent than it was in the arena, but it is no less deadly. And with the 75th anniversary Quarter Quell looming and outright rebellion starting to spread, it appears that it wont be long before the authorities put out the fire once and for all…

The Hunger Games focused to such an extent on the eponymous games that we gained only a tantalising glimpse of the powerful forces that gave rise to it. Catching Fire is a far more intriguing book because the gaps start to be filled in. I’ve always been a fan of the middle book in a trilogy, or the penultimate one of longer series. They are generally the chance for an author to set the scene for what is to come, to focus on character and setting rather than plot. The slower pace allows for more detailed investigation into the background of a situation; the knowledge that there is already a committed readership eager to know more provides a certain leeway for an author to indulgence their imagination and flesh out their world.

And for the first 300-odd pages that is exactly what we get here. We travel with Katniss and Peeta as they travel to various districts of Panem on their Victory Tour, meeting people and seeing places that begin to round out the wider setting. All the while we are aware that events are progressing inexorably towards whatever the Capitol has in store for them, but that is in the future. It is enjoyable simply to stare out of the window and begin to understand. Questions are answered and more are posed. It is fascinating, enthralling, compelling reading. There are scenes back in the Capitol which are cinematic in scope and visual magnificence.

Everything is hotting up nicely.

But then it goes rapidly off the boil. Catching Fire turns out to be a deeply flawed and unbalanced book. It is as though, having spent so long providing background and detail to the world, Collins, loses her nerve and tries to cram in a rehash of The Hunger Games to ensure her readers don’t get too bored. There may be a new terrain and different competitors, but it remains the same old Hunger Games. And without the freshness of the last games, the tension that has built up fizzles out. The world-weary and battle-scarred competitors are far less beguiling than their younger counterparts were, and they have neither the time nor, it seems, the compunction to make much of an impact. The effect is that what is supposed to be a dramatic finale to set of the final volume becomes a rushed and truncated affair.

Basically, Catching Fire is too short. The first two thirds are perfectly paced, intriguing and at least as eyes-glued-to-the-page-exciting as The Hunger Games. Probably more so. But the second Hunger Games is crammed in; there is no chance for the tension to ratchet up or the other characters to make sense. The entire reading experience is unbalanced by the distracting knowledge that the pages are running away quicker than the plot is finding resolution. It is a disappointing way to end what is otherwise an exhilarating read.

But pleasingly, the rerun of the Hunger Games is also its epitaph. For better or worse, the final book will have to tread completely new territory. There will be no comforting returns to the all encompassing power of Panem, no reality TV nightmares, no sparkling costumes on launch nights, none of the routine features that have worked so well up until now. The first two-thirds of Catching Fire suggest that Suzanne Collins is more than capable of living up to the hype that will inevitably surround its release. Mockingjay should be a dramatically different book, and I’m awaiting it all the more eagerly for this.

Edition shown: US edition, Scholastic Press, September 2009, ISBN: 9780439023498, 400 pp
Current UK edition: Scholastic, September 2009, ISBN: 9781407109367, 480 pp

11 comments on “Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

  1. Lija
    February 22, 2010

    I thought both parts of this book fell short. The last actiony bit, for the same reasons you mentioned, and the first two thirds as well, because it just seemed like another excuse for rehashing the first book.

    There’s got to be a less obvious way to remind us what happened before, without making us feel like we’re getting a “Previously, on The Hunger Games…”.

  2. Jackie
    February 22, 2010

    What a great idea to review this one so soon after the first, but that’s unfortunate that the last part of it was disappointing. Did the mood of these books feel oppressive? I think I might feel smothered by the Orwellian atmosphere of them, but then we all know how wimpy I am.
    The cover is intriguing too, worthy of a suspense novel, though the tail of the bird needs to be straighter, there’s no way a real bird could fly with a tail that limp.

  3. Liana
    February 25, 2010

    I agree completely with what you said about the last third of the book. I remember thinking at the begininng, “They’re probably going to go back to the arena, not because that would be an interesting or good plot development, but because Katniss isn’t going to make things happen.” I think the first two-thirds were a little slow. What would have been best is if Katniss had gone with the escapees. Then we could have skipped that silly second games, and still had action and intrigue. Anyways, there’s a ton of good things about the book, but not as many good things as the original.

  4. Sam Ruddock
    February 26, 2010

    Thanks for the comments.

    Jackie, I love that you noticed the tail – and I hope the designers of the books are taking note! I chose the U.S. covers because they are much nicer. The UK covers have cartoon people on them, and that really puts me off. I don’t like it when books give me a ready made picture of the characters. One of the joys of reading is to imagine things, rather than being told them.

    The mood isn’t particularly oppressive and this is both it’s biggest strength and biggest weakness. Despite the tough subject matter the atmosphere is pacy, involving, the characters strong and (some might say) kick-ass! Although it is obviously a bit troubling to read of kids killing other kids, the sense of indignation is strong and it’s moral boundaries are so clearly defined that there is no real sense of complexity. It is dystopia, and presented exactly as that. There is not a shred of positivity attached to what is taking place (unless it is opposing the evil Orwellian regime).

    It is for that reason that it is such a fun and easy read, but also why it will never be as good or long lasting as The Knife of Never Letting Go series. This is escapist reading, that is great literature.

    Lija and Liana, yes, there is way to much of the previously on Hunger Games plague that accompanies so many sequals. It drives me crazy. To sum up my thoughts on this book: the fresh bits were great, perhaps better than the first book; the rehashed bits were dull and prosaic.

    Simples!

  5. Kulwant
    May 20, 2010

    Heyy can anyone tell me what page that passage at the very top of the page was from…..please and thank you

  6. SamRuddock
    May 21, 2010

    It’s on page 4 of the UK edition, Kulwant.

    Hope that helps.

  7. Donna
    July 8, 2010

    I have not read either Hunger Games or Catching Fire. Just wondering if these books are age appropriate for a 13 year old boy. My son doesn’t like to read, but he has mentioned these books as ones he would like. What do you think? Thanks in advance!

  8. SamRuddock
    July 10, 2010

    Hi Donna. Yes, I think Hunger Gamnes would be very suitable for a 13 year old boy. For a reluctant teenage reader they are a great combination of excitement, a little bit of gore and challenging events, but a strong message underlining it all. There is a film currently being made and the third book comes out later this year.

    Hope he enjoys them.

  9. Taryn Jeffrey
    October 19, 2010

    Hello. I would just like to say that this series is quite recomended for younger readers. I could not put this book down….

  10. Pingback: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins | Iris on Books

  11. Peter FIckle
    March 5, 2012

    Dis book the bomb yo!!!!!!! Also the Alex Rider series/ Alfred Kropp

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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