The upcoming movie made me read this one.

Publication year: 2008
Format: print
Finnish translator: Helene Butzow
Page count: 335
Publisher of the Finnish translation: WSOY

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 where the main industry is coal production. Like all the other men, her father worked in the coal mines but he was also a great singer and a woodsman who could hunt and knew all the edible plants. Unfortunately, he died in a mining accident years ago and it fell on young Katniss to support her mother and younger sister. Now 16 year old Katniss hunts in the nearby forest and is in danger of being killed if the local authorities decide to interfere. So far, they’ve liked the rabbit meat and strawberries too much to care. She hunts with his best friend Gale whose father has also died and who supports several younger siblings. Life is tough but somehow manageable.

It’s time for the Harvest, when two kids between 12 and 18 are randomly chosen to journey into the Capitol and take part in the Hunger game. The game has two participants, a boy and a girl, from each of the 12 Districts and only one of them will survive the brutal game which will be performed in front of cameras for all to see. The wealthier Districts train their candidates, call tributes, to survive the game but District 12 is too poor for that. Only once has candidate from District 12 won.

During the lottery, the unthinkable happens: Katniss’ younger sister is chosen and Katniss volunteers so that Prim doesn’t have to die. She barely knows the other District 12 tribute who is the baker’s son Peeta. They have no choice but to step into the train which will take them to Capitol. Peeta and Katniss have two helpers: Haymitch who is the only tribute from District 12 to win and Effie Trinket from Capital who will teach the two youngsters to perform in front of cameras. Unfortunately, Haymitch is a drunk and Effie seems to be pretty ineffective.

A big part, perhaps the biggest part, of the game isn’t surviving on the arena itself. Before the teenagers are put on the arena to kill each other for viewers’ pleasure, they have to perform for the audience. They have to try to interest rich people enough that they will aid the tributes during the game. This means short interviews and a parade in various costumes. For the viewers, it’s very much a game and nobody seems to care that the contestants are actually dying. The arena is an artificial construct and the game admins control every aspect of it.

The book has excellent pacing; I was barely able to put it down during a stressful work week. The characters are engaging. Katniss might seem brutal at times but she has to be in order to survive. She has to take advantage of every opportunity, every slight edge. Yet, she’s human and can’t help but to be moved by others’ struggles. She has an edge because she’s already an excellent hunter and is used to supporting herself in the wild. She has a temper which she’s learned to keep in check but it also drives her forward in a situation where others might break down. She’s a fighter and she’s learned not to trust anyone. In contrast it was interesting to see that Peeta isn’t a fighter, really. He’s baker’s son and his strengths lie elsewhere.

I was a bit surprised when it turned out that the part set in the arena wasn’t just brutal fighting all the time. There’s that, too, characters dying and killing, but mostly it’s focused on survival: hiding and finding food and water. This was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, I felt that some of the things near ending were very convenient, even a cop-out. But I’ve heard enough about the series that I guessed something like that was coming. However, there’s also no hard choices for Katniss during the game and that was a bigger disappointment.

The book has a lot of social commentary. The Hunger game is, of course, a critique of the current day reality TV and also a commentary on the way that the viewers distance themselves from what they see on TV, no matter if they’re watching fiction or a report from real war. There’s also a deep divide between the rich people in Capitol and the District people who die of hunger if they are hurt or too old to work. The District people are forbidden to hunt or forage in the woods around them. (Frankly, I found it unlikely that only two people would be illegal hunters; surely there must have been many more doing it.) Even in the Districts there’s a divide between the merchants who are seen as well off and the poor laborers. This all shows how corrupt the people in power are.

The book ends with an uncertain future for our heroes but not really in a cliffhanger unless you’re a romance reader.