The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, $17.99, 9780439023481/0439023483, 420 pp., ages 12-up, October 2008)
In a totalitarian state not far into the future, children are chosen by lottery to be "tributes" and sacrificed in the annual Hunger Games to keep citizens ever mindful that they are under the government's control. Through the intelligent, searching viewpoint of 16-year-old narrator Katniss Everdeen, this provocative novel demonstrates how one person can maintain her integrity under seemingly insurmountable pressures. The story opens on "the day of the reaping," when a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts are chosen to compete in an extensive "arena," Coliseum-style, to the death. Only one victor can emerge. On this morning, Katniss sneaks through the fence that surrounds her District and enters the woods to meet her friend Gale ("the only person with whom I can be myself"). Over the four years since they first met while hunting, they have taught each other their skills--she with a bow and arrow, he with wire snares. With the animals she kills, Katniss has kept her mother and her 12-year-old sister, Prim, alive since her father's death five years ago in an explosion in a coal mine, the main industry of District 12. These skills become essential to her survival when Prim is chosen as a tribute, and Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Peeta Mellark, the baker's son, is the other tribute from District 12. He is Katniss's classmate and once saved her life ("I feel like I owe him something, and I hate owing people").
Collins, who invented a compelling parallel world in her Underland Chronicles, here imagines a chilling culture close to our own. As the two teens leave their poverty-stricken District for the first time, they become aware of the dramatic disparity between their life and the ostentation of the Capitol. The Hunger Games are televised in a kind of extreme reality show, where viewers witness the gory deaths the children inflict upon one another. Meanwhile, Katniss and Peeta's prep team advise them to play up a story of romance between them, not only to draw sponsorship dollars, which underwrite "gifts" that are delivered by small silver parachutes when they are most needed (food, crucial medicine, etc.), but as an act of rebellion against the Capitol. But things grow confusing for Katniss: Does Peeta have feelings for her? Is it just an act? Can gratitude be confused with love? Collins explores these themes while also filling this futuristic world with clever inventions: muttations ("genetically altered animals [the Capitol used] as weapons") such as "tracker jackers" (killer wasps that track nearby humans) and "mockingjays" (a government experiment gone wrong using "jabberjays," birds that acted as flying wiretaps, that mated with mockingbirds to create a new species); Katniss uses her wits to enlist the aid of these muttations during the Games. Unlikely allies and unanticipated betrayals surface all along the way, and split-second decisions help her stay alive. Collins wins a triathlon here: a vividly imagined world within the arena, the breakneck pace of the plot and fully realized characters--none of the tributes are wholly evil. Only the Capitol and its Gamemakers come off as pure villains. Collins leaves more pieces of the puzzle to be placed in later episodes (the cause of the initial "rebellion" that wiped out District 13, and what Katniss will face when she returns to District 12, for instance), but this volume stands complete on its own. Readers will clamor for its sequel.--Jennifer M. Brown