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[This review contains mild spoilers.]

We are all struck with horror when the nightly news erupts with the spectacle of kids killing kids in the hallways of their schools. So it says something — exactly what, I'm not sure — that a novel about a post-collapse future where kids are forced to kill one another in a government-sponsored live deathmatch treated as the major media event of its day has become a runaway bestseller. There's something sociologically compelling to be explored here, but Suzanne Collins can't be bothered. For all it appears that she's reaching for something very profound with The Hunger Games, the book ultimately only works at the same level of action-packed superficiality you expect from — naturally — a video game deathmatch. Take it as escapism, and you can claim it as a guilty pleasure. Take it as dystopian SF, and it comes up very, very short. It never digs beneath the surface of its themes, least of all the rather serious and appalling moral conundrum presented by its premise. And its media-obsessed future dystopia is not developed very convincingly.

I can see why the novel, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Japanese cult book/film Battle Royale, resonates so powerfully with young adult readers. The Hunger Games offers the ultimate relatable archetype: a courageous young everygirl pitted against nightmarish odds who must use her considerable wits to survive, while, of course, wrestling with such coming-of-age tropes as first love into the bargain. It presents a shallow, cruel and cold adult world that seeks to demolish everything about being young, beautiful, happy and hopeful that it can — and what teenager can't identify with that?

But the book is too manipulative, too lacking in subtlety to qualify as sophisticated, thought-provoking reading. The fascistic, hedonistic society of the Panem is so one-dimensionally corrupt and rotten that Collins feels no need to examine it. Equally banal is the parallel Collins draws between the Games and today's popular "reality" TV contests. See, it's like Survivor, except instead of getting voted off, you totally die! There are violent scenes here that are alarming, and moments in the aftermath of violence filled with pathos. But many times it was clear to me that my emotional responses were just being played, as if on puppet strings. It's an effective technique, sure, but only if you're doing exploitation, not art.

Katniss Everdeen is sixteen and living in District 12 of the Panem, a country that "rose out of the ashes of a place once called North America." The official history is that the Panem brought "peace and prosperity" to its citizens after a time of war, famine and deprivation. Evidently the citizens disagreed, as there came a rebellion that the Panem crushed decisively. Before this uprising, there were thirteen districts.

The Hunger Games were created to remind the Districts of their utter powerlessness under the Panem's rule. Every year, two teens, one boy and one girl, are chosen by lot from each District. The two dozen contestants are set loose in a wilderness arena and forced to fight to the death until only one remains. Contestants from each District are groomed as stars and can receive sponsorship during the games based on how well they fight and survive. The winning District for that year is showered with wealth and favor. When those who rule can casually take your children, then there's nothing they cannot take. Thus the Districts are cowed and subservient.

If you're going to create a tyrannical future dystopia, this isn't a bad way to start. Collins has modeled the Panem on ancient Rome, whose citizens were seeped in decadence and hedonism and enjoyed gladiatorial bloodsport as family entertainment. But she doesn't really develop this culture to any depth beyond that required to make the allegory obvious. It will work for young readers looking for action, who lack extensive background in SF and what constitutes strong worldbuilding. But I found myself wanting more to chew on here. After all, if an oppressive government wants to oppress, there are plenty of ways to do it. The extra step that turned the citizens of Panem into the sort of sociopaths who consider the bloody slaughter of children as young as twelve thrilling entertainment is a question never even raised.

Each District appears to have an industry. District 12, located in the Appalachians, mines coal. Hard to imagine who the coal is for, since Panem's Capitol, a shining Vegas-y city of opulence and pleasure (in a post-apocalypse future?), clearly isn't gunking up its skies with the stuff. And the dirt poverty of the District makes it evident no one else is much in the market for coal either. Katniss's District is so poor people are literally starving in the streets, and Katniss can only keep her family alive by sneaking out into the woods with a friend to hunt illegal game. How exactly District 12 benefits the Panem is unclear. It's made abundantly clear that to flout the laws of the Panem brings swift and harsh retribution. Katniss once watched a girl and boy snatched into the sky merely for running away, indicating a fairly omnipresent system of citizen surveillance. But Katniss and her friend Gale manage to hunt pretty freely, and the black market where she sells her game operates openly.

When Katniss's sweet, delicate 12-year-old sister Prim (yes, Prim — see what I mean by manipulation?) is selected to compete, the horrified Katniss volunteers to take her place. Off she goes to the Capitol with male contestant Peeta Mellark, to be trained and groomed as media stars for the big event. Collins does get in some effective satire here — so effective, in fact, that if any sequence in the book is chilling, it's this one. Confronted by a gaggle of cheery TV personalities, stylists, the usual flamboyant (cartoonishly flamboyant, I thought) entourage that accompanies any current Hollywood star, it's never out of sight that all of this is in aid of fattening up a bunch of lambs for the kill. Katniss and Peeta are trained by Haymitch, who concocts a romantic scenario between the two of them to help build their onscreen personas and overcome District 12's underdog status. Haymitch is District 12's only Games survivor, and a raging alcoholic. It's never openly stated, but we know this is because he never got over his trauma, and has to relive it every year by training up a couple of kids he knows will die.

But that's about as substantive as the book gets. The Game itself was, to my surprise, not as adrenalizing as all that. There are some good action setpieces. Mostly we see Katniss's survival tactics, which are well thought out. We expect a few of the players to be established as psychotic supervillains, and there is some of this, but less than you'd think. The novel might have been much stronger as an ensemble piece, in which both protagonists and antagonists took turns as viewpoint characters, rather than a single heroine.

There is one sequence, involving the death of the youngest and most vulnerable player (blatantly, she's there to remind Katniss as much of her sister as possible), that's presented as the emotional fulcrum of the plot. I can't deny it may move some readers to tears. I found it exploitive to an almost offensive degree. The phrase "rubbing your nose in it" might have been invented for the image of a 12-year-old's angelic corpse rising into the sky (bodies are collected from the arena by a vessel with a kind of tractor beam), surrounded by the singing of birds and the flowers Katniss has gently arranged in her hair. My gosh, isn't this awful! Collins practically screams at you, grabbing your collar and shaking. Does she really think she had to underscore it with such bathetic excess?

The love interest between Katniss and Peeta is expected, but handled surprisingly well. I liked how the two of them had to wrestle with the conflict between the fact their romance was initially contrived for the viewers, and the possibility real feelings might be growing between them. Collins doesn't resolve it the way you'd expect, which gives the story its only element where her characters' emotional states ring true. The Hunger Games ends up an uneven match, skillfully if cynically crafted as fast-paced escapism, but morally suspect, without the intellectual heft it needs to win the day.

Followed by Catching Fire.