Catching Fire Review

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Posted November 25, 2014 by Chad Waller in Nerdy Bits

Let’s jump right in then: Catching Fire has all of the notable problems of The Hunger Games. It’s written in a shoddy form of first-person present, it violates the “show, don’t tell rule,” and the setting is still hard to buy into. However, now that I’ve had a book to get used to these flaws, it’s easier to ignore them, or at least begrudgingly accept them.

Perhaps it’s all about lowering expectations.

Or perhaps Catching Fire is just generally better.

Catching Fire opens right after The Hunger Games ends. Katniss and Peeta are back at home, preparing to go on a grand tour of Panem, but Katniss can’t fall into an easy life of wealth and fame since she had to cheat the Capitol to save herself and Peeta. The Capitol isn’t one to be cheated.

She is right to worry as President Snow himself shows up at her house, bringing threats, orders, and talks of rebellion.

We also get information that every 25 years, the Hunger Games mixes things up with a Quarter Quell, and this year is Hunger Games number 75. I’m not sure if this is deep foreshadowing or severe predictability, but by chapter two or three, readers should expect Katniss and Peeta to wind up back in the Hunger Games.

Predictability aside, Catching Fire is easily the best book of the three. It’s paced in a similar fashion to The Hunger Games, moving along faster than it should without dwelling on many details, but it’s structured in a much better way. The book also spends more time on characters and characterization, something The Hunger Games forgot to do.

There is a realer sense of urgency and threat this time around. Within the first two or three chapters, we are introduced to the main antagonist of the story, and putting a name and a face to all of Katniss’s problems helps us appreciate them better. Now we have someone to rally against, and that someone really takes the lead badguy role with gusto. President Snow is delightfully creepy and ominous, smelling of roses and blood and possessing a harsh, controlling air about himself.

Knowing this is who Katniss must outwit and outmatch makes for a much more hopeless situation than surviving the Games. It was always possible to win the Hunger Games, but it seems woefully impossible to best President Snow.

With orders to do her best to quell possible rebellions, Katniss is shipped out to the other 11 Districts with Peeta on a victory tour. I really wanted to spend more time with the Districts, to learn about them and their people, but we only really see District 11. The others are summed up within a few paragraphs. What we get out of District 11 is rife with tension, but I still wanted more world building.

There’s just so much more going on in this book compared to the first one. Catching Fire forgoes the pageantry of the Hunger Games and instead builds up problems that affect the entirety of Panem. Rebellions are much more interesting than watching characters play dressup, participate in interviews, or train in the fine art of building snares.

The Hunger Games wanted to be an action book but failed. Catching Fire knows it isn’t an action book but a drama, and it is structured accordingly. Katniss meets new issues at every turn, but they are more sociopolitical than anything else (though the outcome for failure remains death). It’s not until around chapter 20 that she and Peeta get shipped off to the Hunger Games, and this last third of the book acts as a lengthened climax to a drama rather than a dull action novel. It actually works quite well, and I respect the change of structure.

The 75th Hunger Games is also more interesting than the 74th. The arena is a circle with large chunks of water and jungle mixed in. Food and fresh water are harder to obtain than in the previous book, but weapons are aplenty. There’s also a fun gimmick with the arena that I won’t spoil, but I really enjoyed it and the struggles it presented.

(Of course this arena would be even more expensive than the last one, what with all of the water and dueling ecosystems of jungle and oceanic wildlife.)

Catching Fire really (and finally) shines in the characterization department. In The Hunger Games, the only really developed characters were Katniss and Peeta, and though Rue and Haymitch got quite a bit of screen time, they never changed. Cinna, Eiffy, and Katniss’s prep team were all fairly one-dimensional and existed only to serve their own plot purposes. In Catching Fire, all of these characters are explored more fully and shown to be more than what the plot calls for. We learn why Haymitch acts the way he does, why he chose the life he’s currently living. We learn quite a bit more about Cinna and how he views his surroundings, even if he has to be discrete about his opinions. Eiffy is a bit more rounded and actually shown to care about those she works with, even if her feelings are still somewhat muted. Even Katniss’s prep team are shown to be more than just shallow stylists.

It’s quite nice.

On top of that, the other tributes that enter the arena with Katniss are actually given some personality: They are now much more than fodder to be killed off screen. Even better is that all of these characters are interesting, damaged, and unhinged, making their deaths feel meaningful. One of the problems with The Hunger Games was that all of the tributes, save Rue, were simply there to act as red shirts. Most weren’t even named, and a handful were made to be evil and crazy so the book had someone to root against. Katniss may have been sad to see them die, but she was the only one to shed such emotions. It is impossible to care for characters whose only definitions are their quirky names.

It’s different here, and it’s a good change.

The characters all seem to act smarter as well, though some of Katniss’s dialogue is kind of bad. The rules to the Quarter Quell are announced a few months in advance, so Katniss and Peeta spend time training and preparing, and when they enter the arena, they team up with others ala Career Tributes. Katniss’s forced playstyle change is both nice in that it makes survival sense, and nice in that it gives a different flavor to the Hunger Games. Catching Fire isn’t rehashing it’s predecessor.

Though why the tributes fight at all is beyond me. All of the victors know each other and are mostly on friendly terms, so you’d think they would all just gather in a group and not participate. Civil disobedience! The Capitol can put them all into an arena and tell them to fight, but the Capitol can’t actually force them to fight. But this never crosses anyone’s mind and so friends slaughter friends.

In The Hunger Games, we got the trio of Katness/Peeta/Gale. This triangle was set up to display the different characteristics and abilities of the characters; Peeta and Gale were foils of each other, and their heightened emotions opposed Katniss’s pragmatism. In this book, an actual love triangle is hinted at, but it’s brushed away by Katniss who doesn’t want to love any of them. It is nice to see this cliché young-adult-novel love triangle subverted.

Catching Fire isn’t a bad book. It has problems in writing and narrative style, but it manages to be a fun and dramatic plot read nonetheless. It takes established lore and expectations from The Hunger Games and does manage something new, and that’s both welcomed and appreciated.


About the Author

Chad Waller

Chad Waller is the cofounder of Dual Wield Software, a two-man video game company that just published The Land of Glass on Steam. You should check it out! You can follow him on Twitter @DualWieldSoft and find his company page on Facebook with a quick search.