Review: Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay

On August 24, Scholastic released the third and concluding volume of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay. After a long wait outside of Books of Wonder, this eager reader waited for midnight among hundreds of fans in District 12 shirts and mockingjay pins. Some of the more talented fans arrived in costume, while others proved their devotion through games and trivia. Needless to say, we all were impatient to get the books in our hands!

A quick summary: Katniss, along with her fellow tribute Peeta, is a survivor of the Hunger Games—a televised event in a future North America called Panem that pits 24 children and young adults against each other in a fight to the death. They weren’t both supposed to survive, and in defying the Capitol, Katniss is unwittingly pulled into a rebellion bigger than anything she could have imagined. She’s the mockingjay—the public face of the resistance—whisked away to the shrouded and mysterious District 13 after the conclusion of Catching Fire.

It wasn’t without some trepidation that I began Mockingjay. The final book in a series always has the least set-up and the greatest expectations, and I was worried how the war would unravel. I’ve often considered dystopian novels ambitious, both in theme and in execution, and doubly so for dystopian/post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. You can’t just casually invent a horrible government without thinking through the effect on people’s daily lives, and you can’t just casually overthrow it with a rebellion led by a couple of teens. So how do you write compelling dystopian YA?

One: you keep your focus on youth. Two: Your narrate the story in first person, through the limited perspective of one of those youths. Kids and Katniss—these are two key things that kept The Hunger Games grounded and believable. The Games themselves push youth to the forefront, both as the ones being sacrificed and as destruction of innocence and hope. Children being forced to kill each other, and then played up by the media as contestants on a reality television show, speaks volumes of the kind of degenerate society into which Panem has evolved. The adults in Mockingjay are far from stupid or clueless. But it is Katniss, a youth who bridges childhood and adulthood, who sets the rebels’ work in motion.

Mockingjay moves away from the arena as the rebellion gains more steam, but the novel has no shortage of violence and death. In fact, I am impressed by how fearlessly Collins addresses heavy themes like war and torture for a YA audience. The rebels fight and the Capitol falls, but to call the ending unambiguously happy would be a disservice. Though many great characters die, the most disturbing passages were of torture: molestation, memory modification, physical agony, and worst of all, the torture of two tongueless Avoxes “for the screams.” And then scenes of war: hospitals get burned down, civilian workers are trapped and killed, and worst of all, children are mass murdered.

Plus, the boundaries between rebels and the Capitol aren’t always made clear. Bombs are dropped by both sides, and Katniss herself commits her fair share of crimes. But she also realizes that, when President Coin suggests an honourary Hunger Games in the aftermath of battle with the children of the worst Capitol offenders as tributes, the rebels are hardly a shade better than their oppressors. “I think Peeta was onto something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over,” Katniss muses. “Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.” Though the rebels emerge as victors, no one truly wins in a world where these horrors occur.

Collins’s primary success in Mockingjay is characterization, particularly Katniss, the narrator and hero. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s first-person narration originally felt jarring and awkward, but I firmly believe that the series could only have worked this way. Readers are exposed to the innermost thoughts of an exceptional, psychologically damaged young woman whose home has been destroyed, whose friends have been murdered, and who must navigate through confusion and self-loathing as she finds herself a piece of a much bigger puzzle that is the rebellion. Collins does not hesitate to show how broken she is, and how messed up her relationships with other people are. Despite fans pitting Mockingjay as the final battle scene between Team Peeta and Team Gale, the characters themselves are remarkably lucid about the whole situation, realizing there are more serious matters at stake. Gale and Katniss’s relationship is described wonderfully: two hunters with equal anger and fire, who might have fallen in love and been happy if Katniss never entered the arena. But she did.

Moreover, Peeta’s character is by far the most changed in Mockingjay. After a rebel team rescues Peeta from the Capitol, Katniss expects Peeta’s usual display of unconditional love upon their reunion, and instead faces a mentally hijacked boy who tries to strangle her on first sight. Under torture, Peeta forgot his love for Katniss and believes her to be an unfeeling, Capitol-engineered mutt to the peril of all. For most of the novel, Peeta wades through his own doubts and demons, confronting Katniss with how she’s led him on and whether her feelings were genuine. I wasn’t sure if the boy with the bread would come back; In these scenes, he’s as broken as Katniss, which sadly makes them equals. The media has always played up Katniss and Peeta’s complementary personalities, but it’s not until Mockingjay that we see the possibility of two broken people needing each other to become whole again.

Despite the heavy overtone of sadness, Collins does balance Mockingjay with episodes of happiness and comedy, like Finnick and Annie’s wedding, Johanna’s pert one-liners, and other moments of colour and triumph. At the end, Collins honours her own characterization with the Book, a scrapbook where Katniss, Peeta and eventually Haymitch collect details of the fallen, the songs and flowers that ring in their memories and ours.

Mockingjay is not without minor flaws, though nearly all of them come from Katniss’s limited perspective, so I accept them as stylistic choices. For instance, we only know as much as Katniss does, which, quite frustratingly, isn’t always a lot. My questions about Panem go unanswered, and it’s hard to distinguish a flaw in the writing from Katniss’s own flaws. (Prim always struck me as an underdeveloped saint-like figure, but it could be because Katniss sees her that way.) I think one’s enjoyment of the series hinges on how much one likes (or believes) Katniss.

Overall, Collins must be applauded for Mockingjay, an emotionally wrenching conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy. She was committed to Katniss’s journey the entire way through, even if it meant killing beloved characters or writing difficult scenes. Children, considered entertainment during the Games broadcast, matter more than anything—so I suppose I can forgive the epilogue. And Katniss, a teen, despite her limited point of view and adults expecting her to play a predetermined role, has agency. She has the power to change things in a world where adults are blind to their own patterns. Which is why the Hunger Games trilogy makes perfect YA.

Faye Bi lives in New York and is looking to put her recent college degree to good use! She reads a lot of fantasy and YA, and is sad that the Hunger Games isn’t as fandom-friendly as Harry Potter. Who really wants to live in Panem?


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