The Hunger Games

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t read The Hunger Games yet, I’ll make this review simple: It’s excellent, FOUR STARS.

The Hunger Games is populist fare without question, the kind of book anyone can get hooked by, even people who prefer video games. But even literary buffs can get excited by this: pure storytelling at its very best. Right from the get-go, from Chapter 1, I was so moved by the concept, so immediately invested in the plight of the main character, I felt I’d found the Holy Grail of first chapters, the kind of intro no publisher or agent can possibly pass up. When you’ve been working as hard as I have to win the heart of an agent, it’s hard to not take my hat off to this superbly crafted narrative hook. Suzanne Collins most certainly deserves her success as well as the upcoming movie adaptation.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hunger Games is part The Lottery, part A Brave New World, part 1984, and part The Running Man. It is set in a dystopian future America, so the genre may fall into the science-fiction category, but staples of science-fiction are nowhere to be found, aside from advances in medicine only the rich can afford and generic engineering, both of which feel eerily prescient. The government of Panem can only be described as every Republican’s worst nightmare, the most sadistic form of fascism. Since farming and hunting are illegal, citizens are forced to near starvation as they work to pamper the handful of wealthy elite living in the Capitol. To curb rebellion, the Capitol devised The Hunger Games, a glamorized television program where boys and girls are made to fight to the death in often gruesome ways. The ages of these children starts at twelve and works up to eighteen, which begs the question, what kind of sick society enjoys watching a twelve year old get murdered? Even the Ancient Romans had more heart. Wouldn’t adults fare better in combat? Wouldn’t their sacrifice be punishment enough? There’s no in-story explanation to the age range, no internal logic. The decision by the author feels like a cheat to pull heart strings, or appeal to the highly prized young adult market, which is my only gripe about the book, albeit a tiny one. Otherwise, Suzanne Collins tells her tale with delicacy and heart—in fact, the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, displays such compassion and self-sacrifice, the divide between her and the people of the Capitol is the very definition of a literary foil. Just like in Harry Potter, character is the novel’s greatest strength. You can’t help but genuinely root for Katniss Everdeen, suffer with her, and finally rejoice with her as you follow her amazing journey.

The writing style is the very best example of modern fiction. Sentences flow off the tongue, in a conversational tone in first person, which makes everything that happens to the main character feel intimate. I can easily imagine a Stephen King or George Martin version, with elaborate back-stories for each of the twenty-four contestants, but Collins steers clear of such pitfalls, focusing her attention on what readers want most. In this way, The Hunger Games is a great example of economy in story-telling; you never feel like the book needs to get-to-the-damn-point. The only downside to one main character is that the book often feels simple. I wanted to know more about the history of Panem and the inner-workings of the Capitol, but the author leaves you to wonder, which again helps the reader identify with the protagonist.

What really put the book over the top for me is the way Suzanne Collins manages to capture emotion. On more than on occasion, I found myself sitting at Barnes & Nobles, literally choking back tears; I can count on one hand the number of books that have managed to do that to me, so that’s really saying something. There is also a romantic sub-plot which borders on meta-fiction. You can’t help but identify with the “audience” watching the Hunger Games as the romance unfolds, despite the sadistic nature of those watching. You can only hope that the love between the characters is real, and not just a ploy to win sympathy from sponsors who can give assistance to the contestants. The entertainment factor of the Games, winning peoples hearts and minds, is a big theme of the book. In this way, the author, whether intentionally or not, sets a Don Quixote like mirror before the reader, forcing us to examine our own sadistic natures, to ask why we weep for some people, fictional or otherwise, while wishing others dead.

Well, that’s it for my review. Still holding the mouse? GO READ THE HUNGER GAMES NOW!

My Rating: **** (out of four)

A Princess of Mars

I think I may have written this book in a past life. So much of A Princess of Mars reminds me of my 2004 novel, The Dark Age of Enya, I feel that I must be the reincarnation of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It has everything I love about fantasy: exotic locations, weird creatures, feats of derring-do, death defying close calls, and of course, heroes that always take the moral high ground. And if that wasn’t enough, just like Xandr and Thelana, both John Carter and Dejah Thoris spend a majority of their time in the buff. A Princess of Mars also shares many of The Dark Age of Enya‘s faults, from wordy sentences to excessive literalness to a number of cliches.

But what is considered cliche these days was original fare in 1912, so you can’t fault Burroughs for having his hero fall madly in love, save the day and get the girl (even stopping a wedding at the last moment!). Burroughs’ themes became cliche because they resonate deep in our subconscious. What adolescent boy hasn’t fantasized about finding himself with super powers, becoming an object of praise and winning the girl of his dreams? We no longer believe in heroes like John Carter, that always do the right thing because it’s right. One hundred years after A Princess of Mars was first published, we’ve become a more cynical culture. When John Carter’s love interest, Dejah Thoris, tells him that they cannot be together due to Martian custom, he doesn’t scoff at the custom, he simply tries to work around it. Modern day critics argue that morality is too relative to have any meaning, giving birth to the anti-hero. I can’t mention titles, but in books published in the past ten years, I’ve been put off by protagonists who rape, torture and murder. It’s no wonder so many teens don’t read books anymore, identifying, instead, with video game heroes like Master Chief and Commander Shepard, “good guys” that owe a great deal to John Carter. John Carter may be cliche for many, but for many young people, such stories need to be told, in the same way the Ancient Greeks recited their myths to their youth for generations.

The downside to having been written in 1912 is that the book lacks many of the literary advances made over the past one hundred years. There is a subplot concerning an alien race, the green martians, that know nothing of love due to the fact that they are not permitted to raise their own children. In fact, as a community, the green martians share everything, including children and lovers, which made me wonder whether Burroughs was commenting on socialism, which is possible, considering the Communist Manifesto was written in 1884, even though the Communist Revolution in Russia didn’t happen until 5 years after, in 1917. Other than that, A Princess of Mars is excessively literal. Every character wears his motivation on their sleeves; there is no psychology, no symbolism, nothing deeper than what exists on the surface. When, for instance, John Carter first meets Dejah Thoris, the love of his life, she is completely naked. Being that he is from 19th century Virginia, you might expect him to react with surprise, embarrassment, or some sign of sexual tension. Instead, Carter gives no reaction whatsoever. Sadly, Burroughs treats the nudity as entirely incidental, having no bearing on plot or character.

As for the writing itself, Burroughs is a good story teller in need of a good editor. Despite a density of story in its 200 pages, A Princess of Mars suffers from wordiness and convoluted run-on sentences. Just try making sense of this,

Had nothing further than my own safety or pleasure been at stake no argument could have prevailed upon me to turn away the one creature upon Barsoom that had never failed in a demonstration of affection and loyalty; but as I would willingly have offered my life in the service of her in search of whom I was about to challenge the unknown dangers of this, to me, mysterious city, I could not permit even Woola’s life to threaten the success of my venture, much less his momentary happiness, for I doubted not he soon would forget me. 

Oddly enough, the writing is so direct and simplistic at times, I found it adding to the credibility of the story. I imagine a scenario where a non-writer, in this case John Carter, is whisked away to Mars, who then tells his story the only way he knows how, just as testimonials are written by survivors of wars and natural disasters. And here’s another wonderful thing about 1912—novelists in those days could sell wild fantasies as true stories. In the Forward to the book, Burroughs claims that John Carter was his uncle, and that the story was left to him after his uncle’s death. I find it hard to believe anyone, even in 1912, believed A Princess of Mars was true, but Mars is a real place you can see in the night sky, and no land rovers had yet been sent to determine whether life existed there. No doubt, many believed something similar to Burroughs vision could, in fact, be real. It must have been an exciting time for speculative fiction.

Overall, I highly recommend A Princess of Mars for what it is. Though simply written, it lacks the pretentiousness and cynicism that mars so many modern titles these days. A Princess of Mars is, above all, a story, a straightforward action/adventure/romance, with a beginning and a satisfying conclusion, and a hero you can identify with. I only wish more books like this were published today.

The King of Castle Grayskull

Forward: I write fantasy because of Masters of the Universe. In 1981, when I spotted the He-Man action figure in the toy store, my life changed forever. I adored the detail of the sculpt, a rarity in those days, but it was the mini-comic the toy came with that sealed my love for all things fantasy. In its 22 pages, I discovered a world of magic, monsters and heroes, and I never wanted to leave that world. That comic was The King of Castle Grayskull. Being six, I could never imagine the plethora of literary heroes that had formed the basis for He-Man, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter to Robert Howard’s Conan, and it has been a personal goal of mine to trace those roots over the past twenty years. My own barbarian hero, Xandr, owes a great deal to He-Man. They are both blond and blue-eyed and they both possess a sense of duty and honor. Looking back at The King of Castle Grayskull, I am surprised at how well the artwork holds up. It is a testament to the artist (who, I now know, was largely influenced by my all time favorite, Frank Frazetta). In later years, the artwork suffered terribly; and all I can say is, it’s a good thing whoever was in charge of Mattel in 1981 valued fantasy art, or I might not be the person I am today. The quality of the early minis drops only in the writing. I am well aware that much of the story was a marketing ploy, and that it also had to be simple enough for a six year old to read. With so many restrictions, I cannot fault the original author for poor storytelling.

Partly due to nostalgia, partly due to the fact that I feel the book deserves a better edit, but mostly for the heck of it, I thought to try my hand at The King of Castle Grayskull, in my first ever comic book story. To read the story, click on the images below.