Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Book Review: Mockingjay

Last month I reviewed the first two books in Suzanne Collins' teen-fiction/sci-fi trilogy The Hunger Games (click here and here for the book reviews of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire respectively).

It took me another three plus weeks to finish Mockingjay, the 2010 novel that completes the story of Katniss Everdeen and the struggle for freedom in the dystopian future of Panem.

For those who have read my earlier reviews, the same shortcomings I found in the second book particularly are further compounded on this one.

Like the earlier books, Mockingjay contains a lot of manipulation and deception, all the name of the greater good of the people. Once more, Katniss and Peeta along with Gale and others are pieces in a grand and gruesome political chess game. Occasionally, pieces get sacrificed to reach the end-game with the writer killing off well-liked characters in the name of the overall story. I will give Collins some credit here as she does not shy away from this through out the entire series. She is willing to go brutal where the story requires it.

Like the previous two novels, this one is divided into three sections with each section having nine chapters to it; the final section here does include an epilogue (which, I think, was kind of bone to the readers who so identified with Katniss and wanted to see her emerge from everything in some capacity closer to normal). I read somewhere that Collins drew upon her screenplay background (she wrote for kid’s shows on Nickelodeon in the late 80's and early 90's, including for Clarissa Explains It All) when writing these novels. Her approach to them is like a three-act play and she seemingly structured the books in a similar fashion.

While I appreciate the symmetry of all that (I have one of those organizer/structured type personalities), I also see how it causes her some problems with pacing in her story. The first novel had some slowness in sections one and two, until the Games really got underway. The second novel, as I noted in my earlier review, dragged along quite a bit in the first two sections until the Quarter Quell got going.

Similarly, book three drags quite a bit in the first two sections as Katniss tries to adjust to life in Division 13 and to determine her place in this new revolution against the Capital. It was because of the slowness of these first two sections that it took me over three weeks to finish this book; too often I was bored after a chapter or two that I closed the book to find something else to engage me.

Yes, there are some plot conflicts in those first two sections but the key action does not ignite until the final section (the assault on the Capital and the aftermath). Once things heated up, I was more inclined to read further each session. The overall plot points of the book mostly worked for me (there were a few places though where I went "really? She’s going there?"). And, once again, I found the narrative rushing to get everything in by the final chapters.

The narrative focus of first-person on Katniss was again part of the problem for me. Everything in the series is either revealed as she experiences it or is told to her (and therefore us) from others. That takes a lot of the drama out of many scenes. The reader has little sense of anticipation of what's to come or how different characters will react. Also, by filtering everything through the thought process of a sixteen year old girl, things often come across as conflicted, confused and purely reactionary. I guess for the book's target teen audience that might be acceptable, but for a seasoned reader at age forty-seven I find it very limiting.

Learning about Collins' background in screenplays, it does speak to a few more points I have with her writing approach to fiction in these books.

First, her descriptive sections are more like that of someone writing for TV or film. She gives an observational, matter-of-fact account of things and locations; she very rarely incorporates similes or metaphors to give them more depth and weight.

Secondly, I find it shocking how poorly overall that she utilizes dialogue to move the story along. When a scene has just two characters in it, she finds it necessary to have them engage in proper back-and-forth dialogue. But if a scene includes a larger group, like much of the planning sessions or the assault on the city, she tends to go very sparse on the dialogue. By the same token, a lot of times the dialogue lacks the "voice" of the character behind it. She does nail the "voice" perfectly with President Snow, Haymitch and Effie, but not so much with others.

As I noted previously in my blog, I liked the first film a bit more than the first book. I will certainly want to see the follow up films. I think the story will continue to be stronger in a visual medium because that is something Collins' has years of experience in. Visual effects, set designs and costuming will all strengthen those areas where her words on the page alone are failing for me. A picture can speak a thousand words after all.

As for this novel and the other two, I can't imagine myself ever re-reading them. Once was more than enough.


Melinda Brasher said...

It's funny. I've heard others talk about how the beginning of the books (especially Mockingjay) dragged, until it got to the games. In the first book, I thought nothing dragged. In the second book, I actually enjoyed most of the first bit slightly more than the actual games. In the third I kinda felt like she felt compelled to recreate an atmosphere like the games, just because it was expected. It felt slightly forced. I loved the first part: the political intrigue, and the helplessness of being on the margins, just the face of the movement.

I write, and recently submitted the second novel in a series to my critique group. The main character ends up as queen--too young, too inexperienced--and the men around her have to protect her and shield her from much of the "action"--and from various decisions they don't want her making. The conflict comes from her struggles for power within this group, more than in scenes of rushing recklessly into battle with a sword.

Many critiquers thought my novel dragged because the "action" happened off stage. As I read Mockingjay I thought, "This is like my book." Katniss is too symbolically valuable to waste in battle. So she ends up on the sidelines a lot. That's her story, as with my main character. I really enjoyed the first 3/4 of Mockinjay, but I could just hear my critique group going, "Where's the actionnnnn!" Apparently they're not alone. But from the success of the series, apparently I'm not alone either.

Martin Maenza said...

Melinda, thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate it. And best of luck with your book. That is always something I've wanted to do - actually do some writing that gets published (beyond fan-fiction groups and posting on my own websites).

I can certainly see your points about Collins' books and understand that there are a ton of readers who love what she did (based on the success of the book). As you noted, different readers look for different things in books so not every book will please every reader. That's the beauty of being humans.