The Hunger Games. You’ve got to love it. At least the first book, anyway. After that, it gets dark. Really dark. I suppose I should have expected that from dystopian fiction. But what was it about this dystopian story that pulled me into its world, avid fan of epic fantasy that I am?
First of all, the writing is good. By good, I mean that it’s clear, crisp and elegant in its simplicity. Although I do hanker after “high style” – a flow of prose where the very words come to life and sweep me into another world. One that pumps fear through my body when the hero is in trouble. One that makes me heady with breathless relief when the crisis is over. And most of all, one whose words transform letters on the page into vivid imagery in my mind.
For instance, although it’s years since the last time I read The Lord of the Rings, I can still picture the Red Eye of Mordor seeking out Frodo, and Gandalf, alone and trapped under the stars on the hard pinnacle of the tower of Orthanc. High style leaves the reader with potent mind-pictures that last a lifetime. And yet, The Hunger Games does very nicely without it.
There are times when Katniss, that oh so ordinary, but oh so remarkable girl, brought tears to my eyes. Scenes where simple words and gestures shook the world. Moments of emotional honesty so clear, so true, so powerful, so heart-piercing that they may as well have been shot direct like a sure-flighted arrow from her bow. That’s reason enough to like The Hunger Games, but I found more.
What are the hallmarks of epic fantasy? What are the tropes that we’ve all read over and again, and yet still like when they’re presented to us in a fresh story, with a new author’s unique voice?
Well, the hero is often a peasant. A child raised in rustic obscurity, who turns out to be a prince in hiding or a magician of nascent power. At the same time, dark forces are on the move, and only the hero holds the key to defeating them. But the Dark Lord is aware of him and hunts him down. The forces ranged against the hero are staggering, and yet, aided by a band of scruffy rebels, (or a lone but steadfast companion) and a wise mentor, the hero undertakes a bold quest. One that will probably see them killed.
The company will of course encounter Strange People and trek through Strange Lands. That, in a nutshell, is epic fantasy. Or at least the tropes that good writers take, transform, and hammer into something uniquely their own.
But it’s also The Hunger Games.
Let’s look at Katniss. A grumpy (she has reason to be) hero. Where does she live? In District 12 – a place of poverty – a modern-day peasant village. And is there a Dark Lord? Well, President Snow comes pretty close. He’s a man of immense power and capable of unlimited ruthlessness to keep it. And Katniss does journey through Strange Lands. First, to the Capitol, (a very strange place indeed) and then the Arena. And what are her weapons? Her wits and a bow. She could almost be a lost elven princess struggling to survive in the woods, a place filled with the haunting calls of mockingjays like some sort of enchanted forest. It’s the kind of place where she’s most at home – except for the games going on around her.
And who becomes her trusted companion, Frodo’s Sam Gamgee? Peeta Mellark. And who is her mentor? Well she has two, a kind of practical mentor for day to day stuff, Haymitch, and another one, for the emotional side, the deeper stuff – Cinna: a man of wisdom and deep feelings. He might not carry a staff, but he’s Gandalf in another guise, for above all else he feels pity, and he kindles hope, when hope is lost.
You could argue that these are the characteristics of most fiction. Well, they are. But they run strongest in epic fantasy, and they run equally strong in The Hunger Games. If you’re one of the last people on the planet to read it, like me, check it out. But make sure you have a firm handle on what dystopian means. I wish I had when I started. . . If it’s not your thing, maybe leave it at book one, which is a self-contained novel.