November 13, 2008


The Hunger Games. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.

Books of Ember IV: The Diamond of Darkhold. By Jeanne DuPrau. Random House. $16.99.

     Books for young readers are a niche. Within that niche, there are fantasy/science fiction books. And within that niche (or genre), there are more and more post-apocalyptic stories to be found. A social phenomenon, or reflection of the wider society? Books that recently came to market were in progress from idea to novel to production for several years – did things seem so apocalyptic in 2005 or 2006? In any case, these are books whose brutality – emotionally if not physically, although it exists physically as well – is likely to shock many parents. But the books are not designed for them.

     Thus, we have Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, about a world in which the United States has dissolved into chaos, out of which has emerged a nation called Panem, whose Capitol rules the 12 outlying districts with an iron hand. There used to be 13 districts, but the Capitol completely destroyed one of them when it defeated the others that had rebelled against its authority. And to make sure the remaining districts acknowledge, again and again, just how firmly under the thumb of the Capitol they are, the rulers created the games of the title – which are games only in the sense that the Romans’ fight-to-the-death gladiatorial combats were games. In fact, the Hunger Games bear more than a passing resemblance to the brutal entertainments of ancient Rome: “Each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins. …To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others.” And the tributes themselves are chosen in a way that favors the well-to-do over the poor: everyone’s name has a chance of being picked, but poor people can obtain some basic necessities of life by entering their names multiple times – increasing the chance of their being selected. And then there is the case of Katniss Everdeen, protagonist of The Hunger Games, whose name is not picked but whose sister’s name is – so Katniss volunteers to take her place. One result: “I enter a nightmare from which I wake repeatedly only to find a greater terror awaiting me. All the things I dread most, all the things I dread for others manifest in such vivid detail I can’t help but believe they’re real. Each time I wake, I think, At last, this is over, but it isn’t. It’s only the beginning of a new chapter of torture.” Katniss does survive, winning in an unexpected and dramatic way – and then it turns out, not surprisingly, that there is a lot more to the Hunger Games and the world of which they are a part than will fit in a single book: this is the first of a series.

     The Diamond of Darkhold is, at least for now, the last of a series, following The City of Ember (2003), The People of Sparks (2004) and The Prophet of Yonwood (2006), the last being a weaker book that was essentially a prequel, filling in some background of the first two novels. The Diamond of Darkhold, written somewhat more simplistically than the other three books, brings Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow back to now-deserted Ember. Familiarity with the story so far is a must – Jeanne DuPrau’s brief summary is not really enough. The book is written from multiple points of view, not just Lina’s and Doon’s, and as a result tends to drift. It is basically a quest novel, with Lina and Doon returning to Ember to look for supplies and a mysterious pre-Disaster device that may have been left behind for the people who have fled Ember to use in their new lives. Really, though, The Diamond of Darkhold is a discursive tale that adds little to the previous books beyond a re-emphasis on alternative energy sources. Readers who enjoyed all three prior Ember books – even the disappointing third installment – will be happy to get some answers to unresolved questions here. They will be even happier with an ending that suggests there could be additional Ember books in the future, even though this one pretty much ties up the series’ loose ends. Readers less than enthralled by the later Ember books – the first was by far the best – will find little captivating in this fourth installment; and in truth, anyone who stopped reading after the first two books will have at least as satisfying an experience as those who continued to the third and fourth volumes.

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