In my experience, the second book in a trilogy is often a disappointment. My theory to explain this is that in the first book the author introduces the characters, sets up the world in which they operate, and outlines the main goal of the characters. In the third or final book of the trilogy the characters eventually accomplish their goal. The role of the second book is that of a bridge - it gets readers from one side to the other, but the voyage is often frustratingly slow. Second books often feel like a holding pattern or a distraction until the third book. The story may move forward a little, but not in a satisfying way. Catching Fire is the second entry in the Hunger Games trilogy and for the reasons above, I had a low expectations. I couldn't have been more wrong. Catching Fire is not only amazing, it is better than the the first book in the series.
To bring everyone up to speed, the protagonist of the series is 16-year-old Katniss Evergreen (love that name). In the ruins of what once was North America is the country of Panem, the center of which is the Capitol. The Capitol is surrounded by twelve districts, some of which are poorer than others, but all of which are subject to the power and control of the Capitol and President Snow. Every year the Capitol forces each district to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Hunger Games where these children, or tributes, will fight to the death - literally. The games are televised for all districts and the Capitol, making it a grisly reality show complete with live executions. Should any of the tributes try to avoid the bloodshed in the arena, the game-maker adds in plenty of nasty surprises to spur them on. The games serve as a reminder to the twelve districts of the time when the now destroyed District 13 tried to rebel, or really as a reminder that they live at the mercy of the Capitol and President Snow.
The tributes are sent to compete are chosen by lottery. When Primrose Evergreen is chosen, her older sister Katniss volunteers in her place. Her male counterpart is Peeta. In the 73-year history of the games (the first book marks the 74th games), only one tribute from District 12 has ever won. District 12 is one of the poorer of the twelve districts and they don't have the means to train the way some of the richer districts do. So Katniss and Peeta go the Hunger Games knowing that it is unlikely that either will return home alive.
I don't think that it is too much of a spoiler to say that Katniss survives the games (after all, it is a trilogy). In doing so she inadvertently defies the Capitol by essentially not being as bloodthirsty and cruel as they would like. This is where Catching Fire picks up. Having survived the games, Katniss must then go on a victory tour. As she visits each of the districts, Katniss finds that she has unintentionally become a symbol of a people who are sick and tired of a government that forces people to watch as their children are forced to kill each other or be slaughtered themselves. She is the spark that if it catches fire, could lead to a full scale rebellion.
Again, often with series I find the second book to be a letdown. It also typically takes awhile for me to get back into the story. Not so with Catching Fire, I was in from page one. Collins does a spectacular job of pulling the reader in and immersing him or her into the world of the Panem, with all of its tension and fear. Even though I knew Katniss had to survive, again it's a trilogy, I was still worried that she wasn't going to make it. I felt her fear and confusion.
Aside from the world building and the character development, one of things I like about this series is the lack of romance. There is a sort of romantic element involving Katniss and two boys competing for her attention. But for Katniss, although she cares for them both to varying degrees, there are quite literally life and death matters for her to deal with. So while there is a hint of a love triangle, getting a boyfriend is not Katniss's main goal, and I find that refreshing. In fact, she is ambivalent about it all. Having survived the horror of the Hunger Games, she is not eager to give birth to a child only to see that child's name chosen in the world's unluckiest lottery.
I hope the paperback version of the third book of the series, Mockingjay, is released soon. I read The Hunger Games in 2009 but only read Catching Fire now because although the hardback was released years ago, the paperback only came out earlier this year. If it doesn't come out soon I may have to forget about buying it and just go to the library. (I don't buy hardbacks.) Catching Fire ended with a surprising twist and I'm eager to find out what becomes of Katniss. Collins did a great job here and I have high hopes for the next book.