It’s tempting to write this book (and indeed the entire series) off as a thriller, and there’s certainly the evidence to back it up: high-adrenaline action, shocking twists, gruesome violence, and a disturbingly dark tone. But I can’t help but feel there’s something more going on here. Even though it’s hard to put down and full of catch-you-off-guard twists, the book is more than just an action thriller…
For one thing, it’s an exploration of the darkness within one character’s soul as she struggles to hold on to her humanity in the face of unrelenting evil. Katniss is damaged, perhaps beyond remedy. She is caught between a passion for revenge and a desire to remain principled. She’s often selfish, even cruel, and though she recognizes and despises her baser feelings and actions for what they are, she can’t seem to overcome them. Though the author isn’t clear on how much of Katniss’ situation is meant to be seen as society’s fault (based on what she’s had to go through in the series, probably a lot), I still found the portrayal of a character on the edge to resonate with the concept of fallen human nature. Katniss is a believably flawed – damaged – individual with a desire to do right at war with passions pulling her in the opposite direction. As such, she is both sympathetic and thought-provoking. She’s not always likable, but you still want to read more about her.
This book is also an examination of the disturbing roles an obsession with media can play in our lives. I’ve always found the whole ‘reality show’ phenomenon a bit creepy, with the way it milks contestants’ emotional dramas for all they’re worth; the combination of total fakeness (disguised as truth) with sensationalistic emotionalism leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In Katniss’ society, very much as in our own, people look to the media for entertainment, for emotional release, and for just a ‘darn good story’. Never mind if the story portrayed isn’t entirely true, or if it’s manipulative, or if people were taken advantage of in its creation. Never mind if it exploits innocents. In the first two books, Katniss was forced to participate in a televised ‘reality show’ which was also a fight to the death in a huge manmade arena. Though the contestants had no control, everything about the experience – except for the pain, suffering, and death – was crafted, scripted, faked. The audience’s emotional responses were manipulated throughout. Now, here, Katniss is allied with the rebels in their attempt to overthrow the oppressive Capitol…but she quickly realizes that she is no less a pawn in a media game here than she was during the Hunger Games, as she is coerced into becoming the Mockingjay, symbol of the revolution. The way the rebel leaders – whom Katniss originally imagined as the ‘good guys’ – use her as a pawn to manipulate public opinion is truly chilling. I found the exploration of this theme throughout the series utterly relevant to today’s society, and not just a little disturbing.
Finally, this book in particular is an examination of war’s dehumanizing potential, as the rebels gradually lose their moral compass, become more and more like their enemy in their attempt to achieve victory. I don’t know that the book is meant as an anti-war treatise – after all, it seems obvious that the Capitol’s evil regime needed to be overthrown, and war was the only way to do so – but it certainly functions as a warning. When the desire to manipulate the public with media combines with a desire to win at all costs, the results here are devastating…yet, given human nature, not entirely surprising.
As you can probably sense, I found this book extremely thought-provoking – probably the most of the entire series, as previous themes were developed further and new ones introduced. I also had to ask myself again why I found a book so intensely dark to be so captivating. Because make no mistake, this book is DARK. Nearly every character has undergone physical or psychological torture – often both. Central characters die. Central characters do horrible things. Violence is up close and personal. Unlike many ‘tortured hero’ types, Katniss’ agony feels realistic. She doesn’t come through the horrifying events of these books unscathed other than a few nightmares. She is messed up. Yet somehow the book manages to avoid being utterly depressing. Usually, a ‘dark’ book – in which the characters are constantly discovering new depths to which humanity can descend – ends up wallowing in nihilism, as the characters decide that no meaning exists and give themselves over to despair or hedonism. Yet here, Katniss never gives up her struggle to hold onto her humanity, her belief in right and wrong. She herself doesn’t always cling to hope, yet somehow, the book itself never descends into relativistic despair. Even though Katniss realizes, essentially, that there are no limits to human depravity, the book itself doesn’t ever feel cynical or hopeless.
In the end, these books don’t offer a solution to the problems they portray. No easy answers are suggested, and there’s no Redeemer here, though one of the characters has always demonstrated sacrificial love toward Katniss. (Indeed, it his in part his selfless love that keeps the books from descending into hopelessness.) Still, as an exploration of several significant themes, I found the entire series provocative and fascinating. Plus, they really do read like thrillers.
Content warning: I think this book was even more disturbing and gory than the first two, and that is saying something, all things considered. The body count is extremely high, and while we don’t see teenagers murdering each other here, we do see plenty of gruesome deaths, as well as the disturbing aftermath of several characters’ psychological torture. I’ve decided that I can’t in good conscience recommend these books for anyone younger than about sixteen; they really are ‘young adult’ reads. (Or adult, of course!)