Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It was released in 2009 and published by Scholastic Inc. After winning the Hunger Games due to an act of defiance, Katniss and Peeta find themselves struggling with how to live with the trauma of the first book. They were supposed to live comfortably for the rest of their lives since those were the rules. However, President Snow of Panem has different plans for them, especially for Katniss, the Girl on Fire. I was really hoping for another intense-action book that pleasantly surprised me. I remembered loving Catching Fire and was excited to revisit characters like Finnick and Joanna, the two most notable newcomers to the character roster. Very quickly though, I was both annoyed and bored with Catching Fire.
The first half of the book is focused on Katniss being targeted by President Snow for manipulating the public into believing that she and Peeta would rather kill themselves together than for either to win the Hunger Games. President Snow, characterized as a venomous snake, sees through the act and says that Katniss needs to play her role of dutiful girlfriend because her actions are causing political unrest in the other districts. I love the idea of political warfare between Snow and Katniss. However, the idea of Katniss being the face of the rebellion gets lost in a love triangle between Peeta and Katniss’s childhood best friend Gale.
In the first book, the small inklings of a love triangle felt contradictory to the establishment of Katniss and Gale’s relationship. The Hunger Games characterizes him as a big brother and a boy who taught her to hunt in the woods to help feed her family. Katniss comes back to District 12 in Catching Fire and feels confused about her feelings for Peeta and also needs to confront her feelings for Gale. However, she does not confront this because she wants to, but because Gale makes her.
I do not like the writing around Katniss and Gale. Collins writes that while on a hunt, Gale cups Katniss’s face and kisses her because he needed to know what it felt like once. This moment, neither asked for nor consented too, between Gale and Katniss feels like it is written with the idea that Gale is jealous of all that he saw between Peeta and Katniss in the games.
Gale in the first book is fiery and outspoken about the inhumane and manipulative nature of their authoritarian government. He is passion and fire, embodied in an 18-year-old boy who has experienced this oppression first hand. Many of his life choices are stripped from him. When Katniss is forced to pretend to be in love with Peeta, I supposed it’s natural for readers to understand that Gale would feel strongly about this. I do not find it surprising that Katniss also feels confused about feelings she’s never considered until now. However, the pacing for this novel puts the first half of Catching Fire as a love-triangle as opposed to a sci-fi dystopian. A subplot of the first book is now at the forefront of this narrative. This reduction of the characters dealing with huge, monumental political ramifications feels like a step down from the quality of the first book.
Catching Fire attempts to discuss a grander picture for Katniss as a victor of the 74th Hunger Games. People have looked to her as hope that they can rebel against their oppressors. It is so interesting and well written when Collins shifts into discussing the overarching politics of the second book. President Snow has PeaceKeepers kill members in District 3 just for showing Katniss solidarity over Rue’s death. Snow keeps watch over Katniss and her family and they have to walk on pins and eggshells because one wrong move and the Capitol will kill them.
As Catching Fire transitions into its second half, the story goes more in depth about Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. Since she has to convince Snow of their love, the stakes are high and her confusion is amplified until there is a plot twist. Book Two of the Hunger Games trilogy takes place during the 75th games and only previous victors can be chosen. Katniss knows that this is her punishment for spending so much time brooding over her feelings for Gale while at home. She knows that the Capitol refuses to let her live the free life she wants. And, she knows that there is only more death in store for her, her family, Peeta’s family, and anyone protecting the symbol of the rebellion.
The moment Catching Fire’s lens moves away from Gale, the story is interesting. There are no lulls once survival mode is one. The writing is more effective, the pacing picks up, and its typical YA angst is abandoned for a surprisingly mature commentary on rising above your oppressors. The second half of this book is so good. I cannot tell you how quickly I finished the second half because everything that made the first book effective was presented. The last line of this book hits like a ton of bricks and brings you headfirst into the dystopian world they are trying to fight against.
Although it is a shame that Catching Fire gets lost in the trappings of a love triangle like many YA books of the time. It’s worse knowing that this love-triangle comes full circle in Mockingjay, where not only is Katniss supposed to lead the resistance and save Peeta, but she will have to make the ultimate choice between the two. Regardless, Catching Fire is a complicated sequel to a stellar piece of fiction.