Aug 26 2010 4:50pm

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?

Ellen B. Wright
1. ellenw
I haven't read Mockingjay yet, and this review gives away just enough detail to make me more excited to do so. That's the best kind!
tayyab saeed
2. skyhawkafm
I just read the book, great ending though it did seemed patchy in details somewhat as if author is using Katniss perspective to avoid going into unnecessary questions(extraneous to plot but still intriguing to reader) about how and when etc. Still good finish to an excellent story, i think we will be seeing a cinematic version soon.
Faye Bi
3. faye
I agree, skyhawkafm--I think Katniss's perspective is the series greatest strength and weakness, depending on taste. The last 30 pages or so went by so quickly. When reading "Days pass, weeks," it doesn't feel like that amount of time has passed.

Katniss's pov also means we never get a sense of Panem, the geographical makeup of the districts and social classes different from hers (there's bits of Madge and life in the Capitol, but not enough). It's very much a one-person story and not an ensemble one, which is a step away from a lot of other SFF (and makes it more YA).
Chris Greenland
4. greenland
I find it kind of interesting that Katniss' limited perspective actually makes us ask for an expository infodump on just how the hell Panem works. Where are the districts? They seem to be a variety of sizes. How can they all only be focusing on producing one thing? Those sorts of questions.

I thought Collins was really clever in resolving those questions by bringing up the genuine concern that there literally aren't enough people left. I wonder what the number is... under a million? Under 5 million? 10? Either way, the Districts producing one major thing makes a lot more sense. You don't need more than 13 Districts, or more than one Capitol, with those kinds of numbers.

I also really liked how apparent it became in this book how Panem isn't any less technologically advanced than we are today, removing one of the last barriers the reader could put between Katniss' world and ours.

Also really happy that she developed the Peeta/Gale "triangle" her way. I really wanted to Katniss to choose herself, basically, but that resolution was the next best thing.

I'm in the middle on the book itself. I didn't even know if I liked it until I finished it, which isn't a great sign. It might not hold up to a re-read.
Melissa Shumake
5. cherie_2137
I just finished reading it about an hour ago, and I still am finding myself tearing up (while in my graduate student studio nonetheless).

Definitely among one of the most emotional books I've read recently, and tops in terms of YA, although that's possibly because I don't tend to read a huge amount of YA.

I think I really need to go through and re-read all three books now to really get a feel for the politics and psychology of Panem, because while I think that the emotions the books bring out are great, there's a lot of underlying things that I may have overlooked the first time through.
Ellen B. Wright
6. ellenw
greenland @4: Your question Where are the districts? reminded me of something neat we learned at the Books of Wonder midnight release party. Collins explained before she began her reading that she thinks of Katniss as speaking with an Appalachain accent (and does her readings accordingly). That suggests that District 12 might be in the Appalachian region. I'd never really thought of pinpointing locations before.
Morgan Crawford
8. Jenesis
Thank you for bringing up the point that
I think one’s enjoyment of the series hinges on how much one likes (or believes) Katniss.
I completely agree.
9. Tevin
After finishing the Hunger Games, I was devastated. Like, seriously, I couldn't read any other book for a month. I would open something, start reading and just see the Cornucopia, Rue dying and Mutts tearing Cato open. It challenged me and made me think about how our world can be like Panem, how we can give tacit consent to daily atrocities. In short, I thought it was great.

I don't think there should have been sequels. I think that the first book says everything that the other two books have said, but better. I don't feel like any new territory was explored in either Catching Fire or Mockingjay, that we were essentially exploring the same ideas but in different scenery.

For the most part. anyway : I did like the examination of the rebels as a sort of proto-Capitol, but it was a little ham fisted and hardly thorough.

Maybe I'll feel differently in after thinking about the series as a whole but like the ice-blue cover, Mockingjay has left me cold.
10. Oriennah
I really liked the Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and I even liked Mockingjay, but I find it sad and tramatic that they kill Primrose. Every one loved Primerose. The suspense and deaths of stangers to her kept me on the edge of my seat and kept me reading, but the death of her sister, who she volentered to essentally die for, is devastating and i feel as sad as Katniss did. Rue was another death I was saddened at, because 13 is too young to die, even in a book where its not real. If Suzanne Collins ever reads this I hope she knows that I am openly against Primroses death and will always wonder why she would even think to inflict such pain on a person she created?

I will forever be sad for Prim and Rue and all the others close to Katniss who where lost in the 3 books of the Hunger Games

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