The Hunger Games, Book 2: Catching Fire. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.
Century Quartet, Book I: Ring of Fire. By P.D. Baccalario. Translated by Leah D. Janeczko. Random House. $16.99.
The first book of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – simply called The Hunger Games – established an ugly, violent, terrifying world in which young people from each of 12 Districts are forced to fight to the death by a controlling entity called the Capitol. This is a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the former United States has dissolved in chaos, leaving behind a loose confederation called Panem. There was once a District 13, but the Capitol wiped it off the face of the earth after a failed rebellion. The Hunger Games told the story of District 12’s Katniss Everdeen, whose name was not picked in the games’ deadly lottery but whose sister’s name was – so Katniss volunteered to take her place, eventually winning (along with her teammate, Peeta) after a great deal of blood and some genuinely scary scenes. Catching Fire shows the aftermath of that hollow victory. Katniss and Peeta are now expected to tour together and eventually marry – but Katniss does not love Peeta and wants to be with another boy, Gale. The seeds of rebellion are being sown again, with consequences sure to be disastrous – in one scene, a grandfather who makes a mild show of nonconformity is shot through the head – and Katniss finds herself torn between trying to protect those she loves and wanting to help fan the flames of dissent. In fact, Katniss herself is becoming a symbol of defiance, against her will and initially without her knowledge. This is a particularly significant time for the Games: the third Quarter Quell is about to begin – these are special Games held every 25 years. The last time there was a Quell was the last time someone from District 12 won: Haymitch, a recording of whose victory Katniss and Peeta need to watch – which means watching Haymitch, mortally wounded, struggling to hold his intestines in until he comes up with a maneuver that results in the death of the only other remaining competitor. Collins is as relentless throughout this book as in the previous one, as people close to Katniss keep being brutalized, snatched from her sight, maimed in horrible ways, or killed. Katniss and Peeta themselves must take part in the Quarter Quell, because this Game is “a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol.” There are twists and turns aplenty here, but the unrelenting sadism of the Gamekeepers and the rulers of the Capitol becomes a lot to take after a while; and for all the nobility and self-sacrifice of Katniss and those who care about her, Catching Fire finally seems to revel a little too enthusiastically in the blood and gore that Collins conjures up. There is, in the end, something faintly distasteful about the book, which is undeniably exciting but just as undeniably exploitative.
Ring of Fire is far less violent and far more concerned with unraveling an ancient mystery. This first of a four-book series, originally written in Italian by P.D. (Pierdomenico) Baccalario, includes a bound-in color section of clues that readers can follow as they read the story of four 12-year-olds in search of objects of power representing the old notion of four elements – fire, earth, air and water. The protagonists were all born on February 29 and do not have much individualized personality beyond the fact that they come from different parts of the world: Elettra from Rome, where the first book takes place; Harvey from New York City, where the second book will be set; Mistral from Paris; and Sheng from Shanghai. The four initially meet by chance (or is it by chance?), and receive a briefcase from a strange man who is soon murdered. The briefcase contains the first clue to the Ring of Fire, which is said to be responsible for the Roman Emperor Nero’s destruction of the city: “As though he were a god, he destroyed the very thing that gave him power.” The book tends to bend over rather far backwards to tie into the ethos that has made Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and his other religio-historical mysteries such big hits. For instance, the narrative is interrupted four times by a mysterious page called a “stasimon” (staisima were choral odes within ancient Greek plays, but will readers of this book know that, or relate to the quotations from Seneca sprinkled within the narrative?). There is even a Gypsy woman who warns Elettra to “speak softly. There are…shadows…listening. Shadows that make the river howl.” In short, the plotting and prose are, respectively, overcomplicated and overwrought; but the mystery is often fascinating to follow, and its twists and turns will likely be attractive to many preteen and young teenage readers.