When The Hunger Games ended, there was no question that Katniss Everdeen was in trouble. She'd defied the oppressive Capitol in as public and inescapable a way as possible, and the ramifications of those actions carry both her and the reader through the second novel in the series, the excellent Catching Fire.
It is a rule of the fantasy trilogy that the second installment is often the trickiest. It must move the broader saga forward without sacrificing its integrity as a standalone story. Tolkien's The Two Towers and Weis & Hickman's Dragons of Winter Twilight spring to mind as second books that actually surpassed their predecessors (to say nothing of the best sequel ever: The Empire Strikes Back). Either this has become more difficult or authors have become less adept, because I have found many recent follow-ups tepid and uninspired. While Collins may not have eclipsed her success with book one, she has certainly not left her fans disappointed either.
The story picks up a few months after Peeta and Katniss return from the Games, not long before they are scheduled to begin their grand Victory Tour of the 12 districts. At the close of the first book, the reader is left with a strong impression that what's to come will focus on the three-way relationship between the two victors and Katniss's male best friend, Gale. While there is time and consideration given to that concern, I was surprised the treatment did not arrive closer to the beginning. After all, the three of them have lived in close proximity for several months, and yet there has apparently been no confrontation. I suppose my discomfort here could be ascribed to a certain taste when it comes to human reality in fantasy stories.
Broadly speaking, I am not one for actual human drama. I can get more than my fair share of that in real life. I would much rather my fictional characters be better or worse than real people. That said, I have to give Collins credit for creating believable human tensions and reactions in this book. I was probably looking for some progress on the relationship front so that the story could move on to more adventurous pastures. But who among us wouldn't avoid personal confrontations, especially when love is involved, even though it might mean months of awkwardness. Despite the surroundings and the setting, Collins's characters are imbued with real emotion, unlike the stylized human characters we've all been so conditioned to expect.
As much as I admire the author's ability at creating empathy, I must register a complaint with Katniss's tendency, a growing one it seems, to go catatonic when things fall apart. Within the confines of the story, I can live with it, even though I still find it frustrating. I can't honestly say I would react much better if forced to kill people I know. From a broader point of view, though, I am concerned that this is the beginning of a trend. I'm thinking here of New Moon, which features another young female narrator withdrawing from the world as a reaction to personal catastrophe. While Katniss doesn't take it quite to Bella's extreme, the pattern is too similar to ignore. As young adult literature continues to grow (or at least the proliferation of books marketed to teens), I think it's important for authors and readers alike to be conscious of the models the genre puts forth.
The tangles of emotion aside, the rest of the story is strong. As a second book, there is less need for back story, which allows the introduction of a wide variety of interesting characters. We meet President Snow, the Capitol leader who seems alarmingly hate-filled behind a jolly politician mask. As a reader, I was more than a little disturbed at Katniss's insistence that his breath smelled like blood. It's thoroughly haunting that this is never explained and is certainly a powerful tease for the third book all by itself. Haymitch also becomes more fully rounded, as the reader is given something of his history in winning the Hunger Games and the life he's lived since. Even at the end, there is more to be revealed about this drunkard of a mentor.
Collins's decision to send Peeta and Katniss back into the arena came as a shock on the one hand, but also seemed somewhat forced on the other. This new round of games features the inclusion of past winners, despite their age or physical condition. While this introduced an interesting element and expanded the emotional breadth of the created world, it also felt underdeveloped. Prior to the start of the games, much was made of the connection the Capitol felt with the victors, as well as ties between many of the individual winners. Once the killing started, though, that largely disappeared. Also noticeably absent was an awareness of the games as a televised event. In The Hunger Games, Katniss was constantly considering the effect her actions would have on various viewers. In this case, the games are populated by characters who are experienced participants and audience members, and yet there is little to no discussion of the fact that they're all on T.V. As a reader, I found this a glaring omission amongst an otherwise tightly written novel. Indeed, the absence of this element which had been so prominent in the first book made me wonder if Catching Fire had been a much longer story before it met with an editor's eye.
All told, however, I found this book completely satisfying. While it is not of the same level of The Hunger Games, it succeeds in keeping the story arc high and interesting. Furthermore, it is independent enough for a new reader to pick it up without feeling too lost. Moving forward, I think that the Games, as an institution and narrative tool, have served their purpose and hope to see Collins take the series strongly in a new direction when the final book is released in August.