Mockingjay Review (Mild Spoilers)

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

August 24, 2010 -- 2:46 p.m.

I just finished Mockingjay and...boy, did it blow me away. It completely beat my expectations. Though not perfect, it was great. I couldn't put it down and now I'm going to go back and read it again from the beginning.

But first, I thought I'd do a review. There are spoilers, but probably not the kind that will wreck the book for you, so read at your own discretion.

I was right about the cheerful cover being completely wrong. From the picture on front, you would expect Katniss to rise up over conflict as something pure and beautiful. You would also be wrong. This book is the darkest of the three, without doubt. And when I think a book is dark, you know that it's dark.

After an admittedly rocky start with a patchwork of flashbacks that left me wishing Scholastic had hired me as copyeditor, we find Katniss Everdeen in the bowels of District 13. Suzanne Collins manages to confound my expectations. Contrary to my worries that the new district would be a magic wand to erase all Katniss' problems, instead we're introduced to a new kind of dystopia. One of supply shortages and secret tortures and rigorous schedules tattooed on your wrist every morning. Instead of being offered a clean choice between good and evil, Katniss must decide between bad and worse.

These are the decisions that make readers sweat. These are my favorite kind of decisions to read about, and to write about.

No matter which way she turns, Katniss' choices will lead to bloodshed and death. One scene close to the ending is an epitome of useless gore. While the final pages may suggest hope (and possible a prequel involving Haymitch, PLEASE-PLEASE-PLEASE!!!), the unforgiving decisions the characters make before the last resolution will leave you wondering if history is doomed to repeat itself.

Collins' writing shimmers when it comes to pastoral moments--a ring of dancers taking what joy they can in the midst of war, for example--but she really shines when it comes to the violence. Which you'll find here in gobs of delicious, blood-rending horror. No, Katniss doesn't end up back in an "official" arena, but she is forced to kill and watch people die in a variety of ways. I was somewhat disappointed given the technology-heavy world of the Capital that so few high-tech weapons were showcased. I didn't quite buy the in-world explanations for the limited use of aircraft and WMDs, but you have to admit that close quarters combat does make for great reading. I particularly enjoyed the toys I did see--including a voice-activated bow with incendiary arrows. Guess what I'm putting on my Christmas list?

A sly reference to Farenheit 451 also made my dystopia-loving heart beat a little faster.

On other military matters, I was disappointed that--despite previous' books build-up of the Capital's insurmountable armies--there were very few military details about how the impoverished outer districts overcame the better-armed central government. But as a tactical buff, I can never get enough about that stuff, and the Hunger Games triology has never been about that.

So what is it about? In my opinion, it's about how we as a society see violence. How we glamorize it (even in book form, which makes Hunger Games all the more ironic, since it's criticizing our arena-watching tendancies while forcing the book's audience into the role of spectators at the same time). While the previous books have explored violence for entertainment value, this book explores violence for propaganda value. Katniss has always been exploited as a symbol, but never so obviously and tastelessly. The rebellion does what the capital has--put makeup and full body-polishes on murder and gruesome death. Think Wag the Dog, post-apocalyptic style.

But while decrying the exploitation of violence for power, the book also manages to rack up an impressive bodycount. My only other major disappointment was the way the death of one of the characters was handled. Apparently, it took place between books, but it is rarely discussed or thought about. It's possible I missed mention of it in my admittedly quick read, because Katniss' lack of grief over this particular individual seemed strangely out of character.

The love triangle is, of course, still in force, although it's the part that interests me the least. Unlike previous books, Gale takes off from the page. While before, I considered him a cardboard cypher, more obsticle to Peeta than actual living being, this time he's a living, breathing character and I can see why some girls on the forums were rooting for him. Collins has a gift for dialogue that rings true in Gale's mouth.

While Gale takes center page, Peeta--kidnapped and in the hands of President Snow--takes a bit of a sideline in the process. Peeta fans may not enjoy the twist his character takes, but I loved it in the way only a fellow writer can. Curse you, Suzanne Collins, you diabolical genius!

It's nice to see the character development of Katniss over the series. I may have enjoyed reading about the decisively temptestrous heroine from the first book, but I still liked the indecesive, temptestrous heroine from the third. While the romance is interesting in and of itself, it's really a stand-in for a choice between two different worldviews. Anger and vengeance, symbolized by Gale; and forgiveness and peaceful reconciliation, symbolized by Peeta.

Though of course, neither character is strictly bound by that nature in the book. Both characters break their assigned molds, making for some of the most riveting moments in Mockingjay. And whenever anyone gets too sure of themselves, Collins is there with a curveball ready to throw them off their stride.

In the end, the choice isn't black and white. Katniss is part Peeta, part Gale, and all herself--a lonely girl hurt by choices that are far too big for any one person to shoulder.

PS: Collins is on book tour. You can find her schedule here. I may make it over to Washington for a signing in November, if I'm feeling ambitious. Also, Publisher's Weekly has an article on the marketing on Mockingjay. Definitely worth reading if you're thinking about marketing strategies for your own book.


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