Young adult novels have always had a dark side, so to speak; a sub-genre that eschews peer pressure and turbulent relationships for death, despair, and destruction. This is not a recent trend. For every Death Note you find today, you can find an equally disturbing Z for Zachariah. While much of today’s dark teen novels lean towards the supernatural, you will occasionally find one that ventures into more classical science fiction territory. Suzanne Collin’s newest YA novel, The Hunger Games, does so quite successfully. The setting is grim and oppressive, the characters are desperate and hopeless, and the specter of death hangs over every page. And every page will drag the reader eagerly to the next.
Strong and positive female leads are important in young adult novels, and The Hunger Games has the perfect hero in Katniss Everdeen. She is tough, resolute, intelligent, and able. Yet, she still struggles with the same confused feelings and emotions that young girls need to cope with, even when not fighting to the death in a government sponsored reality show/snuff film. As she struggles to survive the deadly prime-time death match she has been unfairly thrust into, she deal not only with these typical teenage dilemmas, but also greater issues concerning government, society, morality, and honor.
All of this might seem like a lot for one book to handle, but Hunger Games manages to do so without coming off too preachy or instructional. Granted, the Hunger Games themselves (which are very reminiscent of previous books like Stephen King’s Running Man, or Koushun Takami’s manga series Battle Royale), as well as the post-apocalyptic dictatorship Panem that holds the event, might not hold up under the scrutiny that hardcore science-fiction novels sometimes demand. But for a young adult science-fantasy novel like this, demanding one-hundred-percent social-political realism seems a tad unfair. What matters is that the characters and setting support the characters and subject matter, and manage to do so with the captivating suspense of any mainstream paperback thriller.