I got this book through the reddit.com book exchange, and I was so happy to see it in the box I got!
Katniss, a teenage girl who illegally hunts outside the District 12 fence in order to barter meat for the things her family needs, is selected for the Hunger Games, where she's pitted in a battle to the death against 23 other kids on national TV as a continuing punishment for the rebellion of her district and theirs. It's reality TV meets Fahrenheit 451 in a post-apocalyptic setting.
The freakiest part was how the show people take the time to pretty up and pamper the kids for a few days, showing them off in expensive clothing and interviewing them as if they're not going to die bloodily at each other's hands over the next couple of weeks. Katniss gets a jewel-encrusted gown to wear, and is plucked and waxed to within a inch of her life, and eats as much of the gloriously fine food in the capital as she can. Then she's muddy, bleeding, sore, thirsty, and running for her life. The dichotomy is nearly too much to grasp, but apparently it's been the way of things for 74 years.
I loved the political undercurrents. Things got very dangerous at the end, and not for the reason you'd think. The only trouble I had with it was how quickly Katniss seemed to grasp the danger, as exhausted as she was, and with her background as a poacher with no political experience at all.
Katniss was a dynamo, but a human one. She kept going, kept trying, never gave up. As the games progressed, she was forced into a few decisions that might have made other kids quail. But she didn't. In fact, she often didn't even think twice. Perhaps it was her experience with the life and death of hunting outside the fence.
There was a lack of fear, a lack of rebellion, among all the players in the arena. Everyone seemed okay with their presence in the Games. I suppose that could be chalked up to the week of prep each player got, but surely there was one teenager who totally freaked out at the prospect of killing or being killed, right? Nope. No hyperventilation or denial, no fleeing and hiding in a cave hoping to simply outlast everyone else. Everyone played, and played hard. For a system based mostly on lottery, with only a handful of volunteers, that seemed unrealistic.
The characters were great in this book. Katniss, Peeta, Rue, Gale, these were the best-fleshed characters. They had secrets and gimmicks and weaknesses and strengths. Haymitch was the most confusing character for me: he was supposed to teach Peeta and Katniss strategy, but he never did, so Katniss had to step up and suddenly figure the Gamemakers' tactics out on the fly, and she did so with such cool logic that it didn't seem she was 16 anymore. Mary Sue strikes again.
There were many flashbacks in the story, where Katniss goes back and explains some detail of her life at home or out with Gale, or with Peeta. I found them smooth and non-disruptive, and they seemed like a logical following of Katniss' thoughts during down time in the arena.
The present tense of the story's POV was an interesting choice, but I think it served the story well. In a tale where every moment may be your last, you must live entirely in the present. There were a couple of places where the verbs in a flashback clashed with the verbs in the current storyline and I had to read again to make sure I knew what was happening when, but for the most part the transitions from present tense present to past tense flashback were smooth.
The novel handled the deaths of the players lightly. There was no gore, and most of the deaths happened off-screen, being discovered by the MCs only during the nightly sky broadcasts. SPOILER Peeta gets two kills, but both are off-screen and one is even unintended. Katniss gets four kills, but only two are described, and one of them is vengeance for an attack on an ally, while the other is a mercy killing. The two that were off-screen weren't meant to kill, either, but to distract so that Katniss could escape being treed. The teens who are most intent on killing everyone else--the Careers who trained for this all their lives--are portrayed as the bad guys, even though the only way out of the arena is to kill. END SPOILER In spite of this, I was brought back many times to the concept that the Capital is a horribly cruel government, making young teens with their whole lives ahead of them go in and kill each other so that the Districts never forget who's in charge.
With each death reminding me of this, and with the tension at the end, it's no surprise where the second book will be taking our young heroes, but I want to see how they handle it. I'm definitely up for reading more.