Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
2012 | Label: Scholastic Audio
Readers will root for Katniss despite — and even because of — her calculating cynicism
Take a tough-as-nails teenage archery whiz, throw her into a gory reworking of a child sacrifice myth, and air it all live on reality television, and you end up with Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. In the country of Panem, a postapocalyptic United States, a brutal Capitol maintains its iron grip by forcing its conquered districts to sacrifice 24 children each year to battle to the death in a gaudy, nationally-televised spectacle — and to pretend to like it. In this expertly-paced, nail-biting first installment in a trilogy of novels, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a dystopian Theseus, volunteers to take her sister’s place when the younger girl is selected as a tribute for the Hunger Games.
Facing off against 23 other tributes, Katniss, already a hardened hunter and tracker, is thrown into a vicious fight to survive. Katniss’s icy shrewdness will serve her well in the Games, but it won’t earn her any sympathy points, and if she cannot win over the viewers at home, she’ll never make it out of the arena alive. Her fellow district tribute, baker’s son Peeta Mellark, has a natural gift for audience rapport. If the two of them pretend to fall in love for the cameras, can they garner enough spectator support to win a chance at survival? But what happens when, against all advisable strategy, you become confused about the difference between performed love and real love? And how do you face the prospect of knowing that you and your ally will, at last, have to decide who wins, and who dies?
It’s testament to Collins’s talent as a writer that her story, while plot-driven, is peopled by three-dimensional characters. Readers will root for Katniss despite — and even because of — her calculating cynicism, a defense cultivated out of necessity. They will also recognize in fascist Panem a nightmarish, carnival version of contemporary reality TV culture, one which poses all-too-timely questions: When our lives are turned into commodities for mass consumption, what space is left for authenticity? And how do we assert, as Peeta does, that we are “â€¦more than just a piece in [the] Games?”
Carolyn McCormick’s narration is focused and intent, and if her crisp, precise diction occasionally seems aurally incongruous with Katniss’s rural Appalachian voice, her commitment to the suspense of the story will keep you listening.