I just finished reading Catching Fire, the eagerly-awaited sequel to Suzanne Collins's magnificently popular teen novel The Hunger Games, that came out last year. It was a wonderful read, and I continue to be amazed by the author's ability to weave together so many bizarre, disparate elements to create a compelling, convincing story. Like The Hunger Games, there were several parts where I stopped to ask, 'is she talking about this oppressive post-apocalyptic society, or is she talking about our own?' If M. T. Anderson's Feed feels too hard and desperate, these books tackle the same themes without leaving you hopeless for the human race. Ultimately, they are less about sending a message (though a message remains), and more about telling a really fascinating story.
Katniss has just won the Hunger Games without losing her partner - an unprecedented act of rebellion against the Capitol that cannot be ignored. Now she must face the consequences of her victory - and the deceit that won it. The Games have only just begun. The novel is aptly named. I got the feeling as I was reading that this was more of a transitional book, shifting the ground of the narrative from Katniss's concern for personal survival, to the survival of her family and friends, and on to the state of the Districts under the control of the Capitol - in other words, rebellion. It was a fast read leaving me impatient with the next year of waiting till book three comes out. This is why I don't read a series until it's finished - usually.
It also vaguely reminded me of another book that is due to come out in the next few months, a sequel to a largely overlooked teen fantasy novel I read recently. Even the title is similar. Kristin Cashore's Fire will be released at the beginning of October, one month after the release of Collins's Catching Fire. Cashore's book follows her novel Graceling, the story of a girl with the unique gift of killing. (Incidentally, her name's Katsa. Katsa... Katniss... are we in a rut?) Raised by her uncle the king to be his personal assassin, she has grown to hate her gift and to distrust everyone around her. She is distant, hardened, wired to survive, but not to love. It sounds a little melodramatic in summary, but it's actually a very good story. Not that I can recommend it to people. Because Katsa makes me very angry. And not the good kind of angry, like when Emma is so stupid you want to shake her, but you're ultimately really glad she figures out about Knightley. I grant that Katsa has had a rough upbringing and she's had to kill people in really ugly ways for almost as long as she can remember, but that really doesn't justify her unwillingness to commit her affections or her attention. Katniss (of The Hunger Games - don't want to lose anyone with the swift shift in names) is determined not to marry because she doesn't want to have children who will have to go through the Games. As a result, she withholds her affection for Gale and ignores her affection for Peeta. Romantic mess galore! But messy with a cause. Katsa (back to Graceling. don't lose me) loves Po, but not enough to marry him. Just 'cause she doesn't want to feel tied down. And she doesn't want children because she's no good with babies. Okay, I get the children part and I get the tied down part. What I don't get is why you would call it love, real love, if you're providing yourself with an out. It frustrates me that Cashore's heroine comes so close to being healed from all her garbage, to letting go and learning to trust, but she's still not able to take this step. I'm not looking for a Cinderella story with a happy wedding at the end - I'm looking for healing. And Katsa doesn't have it.
What makes me angrier still, angry beyond description, is the quiet, unembellished use of 'emergency contraceptives' in the novel. I put that in quotes because the phrase implies prevention when what it really does is abort. Katsa knows of a helpful plant, she's found her man, she doesn't want kids, voila! Okay, boys and girls - go and do likewise? These are supposed to be characters I respect, people who are turning from a lifetime of violence to embrace life and hope and peace and all things good and beautiful, and this is what they do? And we're not being at all straight about what it implies. Katniss wouldn't do it. Or if she did, she'd call it what it was. Not prevention, but violence. This is why I recommend The Hunger Games, and why I'll continue with Catching Fire. They tell the story of a girl in hellish circumstances who learns to see beyond herself. Who learns to trust and to be vulnerable when everything around her demands walls, barriers, and implacability. She's no saint, but she's straight with us. Sorry, Ms. Cashore. You're a really good writer, but your books will get no help from me.