Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games was one of those books (a trilogy of them, in fact) that people kept recommending to me, but which I kept ignoring because it was written for young adults and because for some vague reason I kept thinking it had some kind of severe right-wing slant to it. Turns out that while the former is true, the latter isn't, and I enjoyed the book quite a bit.
The Hunger Games is set in a near-future dystopia where North America and its sundry governments have been replaced by the totalitarian state of Panem. Radiating out from Panem's capital city of, uh, Capitol (I did mention this is a YA book; we'll let that one slide) are 12 territories, or districts. Capitol is where the money and power are, with its inhabitants enjoying high technology and wealth sufficient to let them pursue silly vanities and distractions, while the districts occupy positions of varying --but generally insufficient-- wealth and status. District 12 is the home of our heroine Katniss Everdeen and one of the poorest districts, located in the former Apalacian region. Sixteen year old Katniss is having trouble keeping her young sister and emotionally crippled mother fed and alive, but her troubles deepens when she's ensnared as a "tribute" in The Hunger Games. These are a kind of gladiatorial games cum reality television that Capitol uses to keep members of the 12 districts under its thumb, with two children from each region fighting each other to the death in a carefully controlled wilderness while the whole ordeal is broadcast to all of Panum. Supposedly it's a display of the capital's power and reinforcement of the idea that the districts are subjugated to its whims.
What Collins does very well in The Hunger Games is describe the grueling action and suffering that all these kids (Hunger Games tributes range from 12 to 18 years old) go through. The book is very engaging in a constant cliffhanger kind of way and the situations that the Gamemakers contrive to torment the participants are pretty creative. So it's a good page turner, to be sure.
But I also admire Collins's subtle handling of the characters pretty well, especially for a YA book. Katniss tells the story from a first point of view, so the action sticks entirely to her, but it becomes pretty clear early on that she's a bit of an unreliable narrator. Katniss thinks of herself as unlikable and hard, but utterly outclassed in the Hunger Games. And while she has surely been toughened by her lot in life, the astute reader will notice from the way that other characters react to Katniss that there's more to her than that --townspeople seem to like her and her opponents in the games seem to fear her. She's both much more capable and inspiring than she gives herself credit for.
This unawareness of how people perceive her is a nice bit of literary complexity that also feeds directly into Katniss's relationship with her fellow tribute from District 12, a baker's son named Peeta. The potential romantic relationship between the two characters is central to both their arcs, but it's not as simple as you might expect. The pair play up the romantic angle for the Hunger Game so that they can get help from sponsors, but the way the book is written neither Katniss nor the reader is 100% sure about how genuine it is until the end. Since we know for sure that Katniss is going to survive the games (she's the book's narrator, after all) Peeta's fate and their relationship make a nice stand-in for something for the author to imperil.
That all said, The Hunger Games isn't perfect. The whole conceit of the games being a way for Capitol to control its districts is a bit flimsy in that it's hard to imagine such a thing working in the absence of economic, cultural, or military forces also working to keep the people down. If those things are supposedly also at work, it's not touched on much, and I was left unconvinced that the people of Panem would tolerate these ritualistic and wanton murders of 23 of its children every year. I'm also left somewhat disconcerted that while Katniss is a very capable and strong role model for young female readers, her whole fate nonetheless hinges on pretending to fall in love. I get the vague feeling that Collins may be engaging in some kind of commentary here by making at least part of the romance a sham forced upon our heroine, but at the same time I don't think I'm totally getting it. Maybe that's my problem.
At any rate, I liked the book and plan on reading the two others in the series.