Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay

For my first review, I thought I’d go big or go home. Mockingjay is the (highly anticipated) final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy. I was a relative late-comer to the series, having devoured both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire only this past spring. (You know how fashion magazines have “closets?” Well, Walden Media’s publishing office has a bestseller library. Thank you, internship!) Still, I waited anxiously, along with everyone else, for this last book.

I didn’t and don’t envy Suzanne Collins the task of writing Mockingjay at all. I hate to compare, but the last time I looked forward to a book this much was HP and the Deathly Hallows. Closing THG was trickier than finishing Harry Potter (in my opinion) because J.K. had four books more to bring everything to a satisfying finale.

(Here be serious spoilers. Read nothing beyond this point if you have not read the book.)

This reason, I suspect, is why I loved the ending of HP and wasn’t totally on board with Mockingjay. I found myself missing a ton in this book. Cinna, I missed fiercely. I missed his character and I missed what he represented. I missed the pageantry, the subtle intrigue of that showy circuit, and I really missed the random, superbly inventive violence of the arena. While there were some nasty traps in Panem’s deserted streets, they had to be triggered. The characters (and thus the reader) could see danger coming, so it didn’t really have the same impact. I feel like Collins missed that aspect too. I always got the sense she relished those terrible touches even as she’s deploring what caused them. 

Which brings me to Prim’s death: It was a nice touch having Prim die, essentially rendering the whole of Katniss’ fight empty. The bomb that killed her was a twisted and beautiful concept, but overall, the death felt like a trick. All of the elements came into place so conveniently and served the story so well, getting Gale out of Peeta’s way while artfully hammering home “the point” of the whole series. The key word there is “artfully,” as I felt the artifice. Maybe I was reading too fast, but there was no worry, no build. Nothing indicated that Prim might be in the Capitol. How did she get there? (Heartless moment: I didn't care. Prim never felt particularly developed to me.) To me, it was a deus ex death. Disappointing, as I know Collins is capable of planting subtle seeds (like the delicious pay-off of Plutarch Heavensbee’s mockingjay watch and the clock arena). Verdict: mishandled. 

A lot of other deaths in Mockingjay were similarly senseless, though I didn’t mind a majority of them. (It can be argued of all the deaths in the entire series were meaningless.) I can understand that Collins wanted us to be numb to the deaths, perhaps as a way to place us more firmly into Katniss’ frame of mind, but I still wanted some sort of send-off for Finnick. I know Collins can write a good death because of Rue (tragic) and Mags (heroic). In this book, Boggs got a great death, its tragedy enhanced by its accidental nature. Cinna got a passable death. (I kept hoping he was alive, so when I found out my gentle, creative soul was tortured to death “offpage,” it stung.) Even President Snow got his good death!  Finnick didn’t get that courtesy. He became a heartbreaking figure when he revealed his past, found happiness with the woman he loved, and then disappeared completely. On top of that, the muttations that killed him kind of sucked. Overgrown albino iguanas that smelled like roses and hissed? This from the author who gave us wolf mutts with the eyes of 21 dead tributes (and gave me lasting googly-mooglies)? THOSE WERE AWESOME. 

Speaking of awesome, some things I was beyond pleased with: The supporting characters! Beetee had so little plot time and still felt like such a delightful presence. Plutarch was alternately amusing and horrifying. Both Haymitch and Coin were complex and alive. I adored each member of Katniss’ hardcore camera crew. Also, I have a soft stripe for Tigris, the former stylist turned tiger lady, and Buttercup. (Collins writes a good cat.)  I was tickled by “hijacking,” both the wordplay and the deed, as well as the names of Castor and Pollux. Some effective socks to the gut: the hospital roof caving in, Johanna’s water phobia, the “Hanging Tree” song, and “real or not real.”

In light of these supporting characters, I felt most keenly the loss of Katniss. Even if she was forced into most situations and lucked out of many of them, she had a survivalist core and a heroic lean.  I lost track of those attributes in the book. PTSD!Katniss felt like Hormonal!Harry (5th book), so I tolerated her in the hopes she would shine through in a clutch situation. However, when she shot down the planes in District 8 or brokered the mine deal in District 2, it still didn’t feel like enough to redeem. It was close, but it fell short. Worse, after her actual heroic moment in shooting President Coin, no one would listen to their symbol of rebellion or even think to try? Though it was poetic that the Mockingjay figure is silenced, I resented that all choice was taken away from her, that she was invalidated. 

On that, let’s just jump to the love triangle. Collins didn’t give Katniss the dignity of choice. After the double bomb, she just can’t look at Gale ever again? Really? I was interested in that choice. It would have said something about Katniss. She would have had agency. She could have refuted the insulting accusation Gale made about choosing whoever would best help her survive. (Was her future, left to their devices, so far off from his prediction?) Gale and Katniss would never have worked because they were both fire? So Katniss and Peeta (still, I can’t help but think of pita) are fire and…bread? Fire and a flower? And Gale just disappears conveniently in a far-away government job? While I appreciated the roughed-up version of Peeta, having him swoop in and make the decision for Katniss is not OK.

I guess what it boils down to is that I wanted a little more heroism from my heroine. It’s a purely selfish wish, and I acknowledge that. I do realize that The Hunger Games is more about survival than heroism and that Katniss never asked for any of it. I can be fine with the ending. (I have to be. It’s the only way it ends.) I can believe Katniss had fought enough, that she deserved to rest, so she lets herself stop. And she does.  

I guess I’m bumping up against the issue of what readers want out of a story versus what the author gives the readers. Is it fair to place these expectations on the author? No, probably not. Will they be there? Yes, always. Did I still enjoy the overall work? Yes, absolutely. Ultimately, I care about these characters and I’m intrigued by the ideas. (I wouldn’t have written this much in review otherwise.) At the end of the trilogy, I appreciate being left with resonant, relevant social commentary: Children are sacrificed on the altar of their parent’s anger until it can be put aside or burned up. There is a place for living in the middle, between the excess of Panem and over-correction of District 13. Finally, don’t ever underestimate the combination of human nature and ingenuity.


  1. Great commentary. I agree with all your points. Mockingjay was just a big letdown for me. ~,~ I would have been happy to skip it entirely, and pretend it ended at Book #2. If you care to, here's my review from back in September:

    I've stopped reviewing books on this blog, actually, but you're welcome to browse the couple hundred other books I've reviewed since joining in 2009. ^_^

    I started following you, btw. Looking forward to more reviews, Amy!

    Bettina (aka, Magenta)

  2. Thanks for the Mockingjay backup, Bettina! The more I read about it, the more I appreciate it (see:, but these initial feelings definitely still hold true.

    Followed back! Also, I am happily going to poke through your archives. :)

  3. Ooh, yay! Thanks for following! ^_^

    But like I said, I don't post there anymore. Not since October. =P If you'd like to keep up with me (and catch the occasional book review) then follow me here:

    Always fun to make a new friend. ^_~