Catching-fire“I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air.”

Writing about sequels and trilogies is hard because anything you say will undoubtedly be laced with spoilers. It’s like if you read the blurbs on the backs of progressive books in a series, you can work out much of what is going to happens. Blurbs, it seems, automatically fix cliffhangers.

But I give my usual warning anyway that if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, spoilers to that book start immediately below, so you can catch up with my review of that here, or just thunder on through.

So Katniss has survived the Hunger Games and is now back home, her and her people showered with gifts, this being the prize for winning the Games, but she’s not happy. As far as the world is concerned, she’s meant to be wildly in love with fellow combatant Peeta. However, she’s now sure that she loves her best friend Gale, only they barely get any time to spend together anymore. On top of that, there’s the never-ending nightmares about her time in the arena.

Out of the blue, Katniss receives a visit from President Snow, the leader of Panem, who is silently furious. Katniss’s tiny act of rebellion against the Capitol last year (to have both her and Peeta crowned winners of the Games) has led to murmurings of uprisings in various districts around the country. Should anything come of them, Snow suggests, it will be Katniss and those she loves that suffer the greatest punishments.

With the threat lingering over her head, Katniss and Peeta begin the Victory Tour of Panem and as other districts become more restless, and Katniss’ own District 12 suddenly becomes a lot more militant, she begins to worry exactly to what extent Snow’s rage will stretch. And then it becomes clear. He’s going to get rid of her in the smartest way possible – he’s sending her back into the Games…

OK, so I still don’t like Katniss, which is a shame, because I like most of the supporting cast. Peeta, Haymitch, Effie and Cinna, the latter of whom gets precious little page time in this one, are all great, and I’m even fond of the Games participants, all of whom are previous champions. Johanna is clearly a bit mental and I think she’s great. The two nerds from the electronics district are endearing, and Finnick, a born fisherman, is very interesting, as is the eighty-year-old Mags.

In terms of plot, the pacing is all over the place. The book takes forever to get going, with large sections given over to Katniss worrying. She seems to not be a particularly active protagonist, merely instead letting things happen to her, although she generally handles herself very well in whatever situation. Too well, sometimes. For example, it’s mentioned early on about a secret lake that she used to swim in, and then the arena later on is mostly water, giving her an advantage she shouldn’t have had. The stuff during the Games is the best bit, and then the final chapter or two races through so much exposition, you can’t help but feel that Collins was coming up against her deadline and her publisher had said, “By the way, we want a third one too, so can you throw in a couple of plot hooks there?”

The writing, actually, isn’t bad. Collins is a good writer, but that’s not always the same as being a good storyteller. The best bits about these books are the times set inside the Hunger Games arena, and everything else is just fluff. That’s where the good story comes in, but it takes so long to get there this time, and a lot of the training set up feels so familiar from the last book that it’s not especially interesting.

So it’s OK, but it’s not as good as the first one, and everyone I’ve spoken to says that the third book is terrible (although, inexplicably, also claim that the film versions are the best) but I think I’m going to have to read it just for the sake of completion, although I think I can see exactly where it’s going. Collins will have to pull of a spectacular twist, here.

This is the ultimate difficult second novel. I will be interested to see if it can be saved, although my hopes are not high.