Katniss has always been a survivor - after her father died and her mother withdrew almost to the point of catatonia, it was only her daring and ingenuity that put food on the table and kept her and Prim, her little sister, alive. With her closest friend, Gale, Katniss picks, gathers and uses her father's bow and arrows to illegal hunt in the wilderness alongside District 12. Some of their bounty is divided between them, and the rest is bartered, but it's still not enough to do much more than keep starvation at bay. Which is why, along with most of the children of the District, Katniss receives three tessera, meager portions of oil and grain, enough to supplement a diet for a year. But tesserae are not free - in exchange, Katniss's name is added more times to the selection pool for the reaping, the selection process for the annual Hunger Games. As a sixteen-year-old her name would be entered seven times, anyway, but thanks to four years of tesserae the total this year is twenty; Gale, at eighteen and with more dependents, has forty-two entries and Prim, just twelve, has only one.
When Prim's name is drawn, Katniss volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games in her stead. With two participants, a boy and a girl, from each of the Districts, Prim has no chance. For the Hunger Games are an annual, compulsory event combining skill, physical and mental strength, prowess, guile, thousands of cameras, and great reward for the winner and his or her home District. But to get there the winner has to be the sole survivor.
This justifiably renown novel is a triumph - from the set up and characterisation through to the action seasons and the twists, every note is perfect. The star, of course, is Katniss, but all the supporting characters are equally vivid, flawed and realistic.
Realism is, of course, at the heart of the concept, for the Hunger Games are reality TV writ large - voyeurism at a remove, with an audience relating to but removed from the participants, and each series promising something new to keep the viewers hooked. Instead of votes for elimination, supporters can proffer presents - supplies, food, medicine - to favoured contestants, but everything goes through a mentor, a Hunger Games survivor from a previous season. To get supporters contestants have to make a connection with the audience, and each contestant has a styling team prior to entry in the arena.
I was reminded of several other novels while reading The Hunger Games, particularly the Star Trek novel Kobayashi Maru (where a no-win scenario is defeated by a young James T Kirk) and Westerfeld's Uglies series. This was not because The Hunger Games is at all derivative but because there are similar elements, differently handled. Additionally, the premise of a reality program that devolves into a race for survival is similar to that of the 2001 film Series 7; where the Hunger Games differs, apart from the age of its protagonists, is the exploration of a culture where this arrangement could not only be tolerated but state sponsored. Narrated in the first person, Katniss gives the reader background that sites the societal set up for the Hunger Games, and she struggles with the concept throughout. The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy, and I strongly suspect that the manipulation Katniss uses to beat the game will be echoed in a larger form in the sequel. I've reserved a copy at my library, and will find out soon enough. - Alex