Book Review: Mockingjay

August 26, 2010

In 2008, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel The Hunger Games reached popular and critical acclaim for its compelling portrayal of the intricacies of love and loyalty when set against the human desire to survive. Its sequel, Catching Fire, moved seamlessly into the lengths to which an oppressive ruling power will stretch to maintain their fragile control, and what it takes to forge a revolution. In Mockingjay, the third and final chronicle of the Hunger Games, Collins takes us on a spare-no-glance tour of the cost of war on a nation and on the human soul, and of how far we are willing to go in defense of a fragile conception of moral right.

Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Who was on Fire, has survived two of the infamous death matches known as the Hunger Games and has unintentionally made herself into the symbol of the resistance against the Capitol’s tyrannical rule. Peeta, the one person who has been through as much as she has and understands, has been captured by the Capitol. District 12, her home, is a firebombed ruin. All around her war rages– the districts are revolting, and at last President Snow’s regime will be toppled or will crush them all.

Katniss is safe in the hands of the surviving District 13, protected as the face of a revolution must be. Inside, she is terrified by the loss of Peeta, enraged by the abuses of the Capitol, and discomfited by the “allies” who seek to use her standing for their own ends. The only stable thing in her life seems to be Gale, her oldest remaining friend, and even he seems to be someone she doesn’t quite recognize any more. Amidst all of this, Katniss must put aside her misgivings and come to terms with the fact that she is the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for a nation, who is responsible for countless lives.

Anyone who has read one or both of the previous Hunger Games books knows that Suzanne Collins pulls no punches with her vivid prose, but even knowing this I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of Mockingjay. This is a book about love, trust, family, and heroism, true, but above all else it is a story of war and what war does to us. You will not necessarily like this book; you may come out of it hating Collins, Katniss, Peeta, Gale, or any other of the numerous characters. But it will resonate with you, and that, combined with your hatred, will be how you know Collins succeeded in what she set out to do– her characters are human. They have human lusts, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. Their every defeat is diluted by hope, and their every victory is tainted by regret. At the end, you will be hard pressed to say who won, exactly, because each side– every individual, in fact–left so indelible a mark on the outcome that the idea of “winning” seems nothing more than a nostalgic fantasy from before everything was set in motion.


Book Review: The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi)

May 23, 2010

There is no denying that Orwell’s 1984 was a relevant and terrifying speculation on the future when it came out in 1949, and that elements of its prophecy have come true, but fascism is not the threat to our way of life that it once was. The world has changed, and its nightmares have changed with it. Paolo Bacigalupi has provided an updated account of what humanity is doing to itself: welcome to the world of The Windup Girl, where domestic cats have been supplanted by flickering engineered cheshires, calories are currency, and governments and corporations struggle to stay one step ahead of the bio-terrorist super-blights which ravish the world’s rapidly diminishing supply of produce.

Many of the world’s nations have already fallen to blister rust, cibiscosis, genehack weevils, and the predations of the midwestern monopolies, which sell sterile crops so that none can take their market. Thailand has survived by nationalizing its seedbank and keeping the secrets of the last natural flora for themselves, but Anderson Lake has come undercover from AgriGen to take their secrets for his company’s profit. But his factory manager Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from genocide, has plans of his own.

Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, leads the Environmental Ministry’s white shirt enforcers and spends his days intercepting and destroying smugglers’ loads of illegal produce and trying to elicit a laugh from his stoic second, Kanya.

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a beautiful and illegal genetic hack designed to be the companion of a wealthy Japanese businessman, abandoned on the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as abhorrent and unnatural by the Thais, she allows herself to be pressed into the life of a prostitute in exchange for shelter from the white shirts who would euthanize her.

These are the characters around whom Bacigalupi unfolds his epic tale of the age after oil, the characters whose intrigues and desperate attempts at self-preservation may tip the scales on the fate of the entire kingdom in which they machinate, may push humanity to the very brink of extinction. The Windup Girl is as relevant and terrifying as 1984 must have been when it was new. It is a vivid and fully realized conceptualization of what world we may find in the next century, and a dire warning for us all.

For more information and free reading of a few short stories set in the world of The Windup Girl, head on over to Bacigalupi’s website.

This book contains explicit sexual content.