The Hunger Games.
Color me impressed. In a environment where far too many books aimed at adolescents get a pass because, "hey it's getting kids excited about reading," here's a solid Sci-Fi series that aims for something a bit more. Collins has crafted a world that seems fantastical, while sadly possible. A world full of good and evil, but where those lines are blurred.
Katniss Everdeen, and her story start out simple enough. She's a girl of 16, living in the country of Parnem, the remains of the United States, after some sort of disaster. Parnem has 12 Districts, and, every year, each must send a teen boy and girl to the Capital to compete in the Hunger Games. Only one child will survive.
Katniss is a hunter, with skills in tracking and the bow. When her younger sister's name is drawn for the Games, she steps forward to take her place. This sends her into a journey that will take her rapidly into adulthood, and far from the simple life of hunting she had enjoyed.
What is really impressive is that Collins doesn't back down from her subject matter. The story is, fundamentally, about teenagers being thrust into situations where they must face death, and kill to survive. It's about being used by powers greater than yourself. Finding out that, even those who are on the side of "good," are still motivated by power an influence. That celebrity and fame carry a burden, as well as reward. Not to mention a pretty naked criticism of our reality show culture.
No, she doesn't back down. About halfway through the series, you begin to get a real sense that no one is going to get out of this unscathed. Injuries, both physical and mental have been sustained, with nothing but the promise of more. A major supporting character is hauled away brutally, and, when I realized there would be no return for him, I knew hat Collins was playing for keeps. To her eternal credit, she holds to the purpose of her series, and never blinks. I've seen too many of these series where I feel like the writer was aiming for something really profound and irreversible, then chickened out.
Collins does not chicken out. She gives every character a price to pay, and those debts are not magically lifted. In her acknowledgements, she thanks her father for the truth about war and peace (That's me going by memory, so it's not exactly accurate). Collins, with this series does the same, even those who do survive to the end of the book are changed, forever. A price is paid.
I've read a number of reader reviews of the final book (my personal favorite), where readers felt betrayed by the dark turns. How sad that so many have become indoctrinated to the idea that stories should end happily, that heroes should emerge victorious and untouched. That you can't wake up and find out that those you put your trust in are just as bad, or worse, than those you fight against. That characters can't be lost, just because we love them.
That's just not the way the world works.
The Hunger Games - Catching Fire - Mockingjay