Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins

[The following review contains major spoilers from Mockingjay.]

Summary: Katniss has been rescued from the Quarter Quell and is now in District 13, a rebel stronghold, with her family and Gale.  The leaders of the resistance movement want Katniss to become the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion, but she isn't sure she's willing to take on that role.  Meanwhile Peeta is being held by the Capitol.  As it becomes clearer that war between the Capitol and the Districts is inevitable, Katniss must decide what part she will play.

Musings: Like many people, I've been aching for the release of MockingjayThe Hunger Games is my favorite YA novel, and I eagerly anticipated the trilogy's conclusion.  And although it pains me terribly to say it, I was so, so disappointed.  I have a lot of problems with the novel, but, in the end, I think my major issue is with Katniss herself.

What I loved about Katniss in Hunger Games was her survival instinct and refusal to give up.  Even in the face of all that the Capitol was forcing her to do, Katniss stood up for herself, refusing to be just a pawn.  She took Prim's place in the Games; she made Rue beautiful in her death; she threatened to take the berries with Peeta.  It is that strength and fire that makes her the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion.

But in Mockingjay, despite the rebellion's desire for Katniss to formally embrace her symbol, Katniss is no longer the "girl on fire."  Like the first half of Catching Fire, Katniss spends most of the book in an angsty self-deprecating stupor.  Her life is understandably difficult; in Hunger Games, Katniss only had to worry about her, and later Peeta's, survival.  But now she feels responsible for the lives, deaths, and hardships of many people.  However, instead of reacting with determination, Katniss remains depressed or hysterical (I was surprised by how many times she's sedated or restrained in the novel; it's somewhat disturbing), hiding in closets rather than playing any role in what happens to her or her country.  It's hard for the characters in the book and for the reader to rally around a hero who seems to have no real spark and no real autonomy.

So despite the world-changing events in the book, Katniss does very little.  She once again becomes a pawn, this time of the rebellion, breaking slightly out of her prescribed role occasionally, but always returning to the rebels' primary intention in the end.  The one event that she does finally take some control over, President Snow's assassination, is an utter disaster.  It ends with several people dying and accomplishing absolutely nothing. 

The only real active choice I saw Katniss make was Coin's assassination.  I don't have problems with Coin's death in and of itself, but, truthfully, it felt too abrupt.  Although Katniss does not like Coin, we rarely see her wrestling with the the dangers of each leader.  And, of course, after the killing, Katniss is subdued, locked up, and put on trial (a trial that she is not even in attendance for!).

And here we come to one of my main criticisms of the book.  I hated the ending.  Going in, I had no particular preference for Peeta or Gale, though I assumed she would end up with one in the end.  So I have no problem with her starting a family with Peeta.  But my objection to the ending was that it was the final culmination of Katniss' lack of agency in her life.  It was a final reminder, for me, that Katniss is broken and powerless, and not at all the girl from the first book.

After the trial, Katniss is "sentenced" to return to District 12.  Her mother chooses not to return; Gale chooses not to return.  Peeta, of course, does come back.  So when Katniss finally feels slightly more human, after time, Peeta is the one who's there.  He does understand her pain, having been in the Games, but he's also the only option.  Peeta's a great guy, but that seems more like resignation than a choice.  Collins states that Peeta's steadiness and warmth was more important to Katniss than Gale's fire; that may be, but there's no indication of that being true throughout the book or that Katniss comes to that decision and picks Peeta.

Characters don't always have to be strong and determined in the face of adversity, and I wouldn't argue that Katniss should never show weakness or despair.  But, the ending of the trilogy does not live up to the characterization, story, and pacing of the first book.  There's no satisfaction, as a reader, of seeing your hero go from the "girl on fire" to someone completely powerless and ineffective.

Katniss herself was my main problem, but I had a lot of other issues with the book too.  Katniss' own lack of energy is reflected in the book itself, as very little happens.  There are a lot of meetings and plannings, but there's no real tension or excitement.  It is hard to admit, but I was bored.  Even the few moments that could be more dramatic, like Peeta's rescue, happen so quickly that there's no sense of anticipation.  When Katniss makes an allusion to attacking the Capitol's pods being like the 76th Hunger Games, I was actually excited.  I thought perhaps the action would pick up.  Instead, a number of people die, and then everything is over.

I had also hoped that Katniss' relationships with Gale and Peeta would be fleshed out.  She spends most of the first two books running away from talking with them, and I saw her renewed closeness with Gale in the beginning of Mockingjay as a good sign. However, she's soon not talking to him as well.  Having Peeta returned hijacked was an interesting plot device, but it's also hard to see such a warm and steady character act in that manner.  It made Katniss' life with him later less rewarding.

Going in, I really thought the ending of Mockingjay would make even a dull beginning worth it.  By the end, I felt hurt and betrayed.  I'd invested my emotional energy in a book that did not justify it.  I would still highly recommend The Hunger Games to any reader, but I think I'd advise him/her to stop after the first book.  Awhile ago a student and I were arguing whether the Hunger Games or Chaos Walking (Patrick Ness) trilogy was better.  I thought Hunger Games was better than The Knife of Never Letting Go, but that The Ask and the Answer was much stronger than Catching Fire.  After reading both Monsters of Men and Mockingjay, the win definitely goes to Ness' works.  

Note: There's an excellent review on Amazon by Ilana, in which she criticizes the book because of its failure in terms of Katniss' journey.  Her review helped me formulate some of my thoughts, and I highly recommend it.


  1. How funny you bring up Chaos Walking - when Beetee was breaking into the Capitol's broadcasts and the propoganda was going back and forth between Peeta and Katniss, I kept thinking of Viola and Todd being torn back and forth in The Ask and the Answer!

  2. Yeah, this definitely brought up a lot of comparisons for me. Especially the similarity of the Coin/Snow and the Mistress Coyle/Mayor Prentiss dynamic. I thought Ness did a lot of better job dealing with the ambiguities of the two sides though. Sigh!

  3. A direct comparison between the two series isn't all that easy, because they are set up to look at war in totally different ways. Ness embeds us with both sides of the conflict to really show us how war isn't black and white. In the Hunger Games trilogy, we only see it from Katniss' point of view, and the people in charge are intent on keeping her in the dark, while Prentiss and Coyle always wanted to draw Todd and Viola into leadership positions. Katniss was nothing more than a symbol - and unfortunately she let herself be used that way in Mockingjay (in Catching Fire, of course, she had no control over becoming a symbol of the rebellion)

  4. I agree we, as readers, see the war in different ways in the two series because of who the protagonists are. Katniss doesn't think about the issues nearly as much as Todd and Viola, and, as you said, she has no active role in what happens. But I do think the basic structure of the problems present in each side (rebel vs. existing power structure), epitomized by Coyle/Coin and Prentiss/Snow are very similar. For me, Ness' series just presented it in a more compelling way.