I didn’t love the first two books in this series – the worldbuilding is flimsy and I couldn’t help comparing them to the remarkably similar Battle Royale movie, which I like a lot more - but I liked Katniss, her narrative voice, and the energy of the story enough to keep reading. That was a mistake.

Not only is Mockingjay awesomely depressing, but the elements I enjoyed in the first two books are absent. It lacks energy, and Katniss’s character has changed radically and off-page before the book begins: the angry, determined survivor of the first two novels is gone, replaced by a clinically depressed and passive girl who spends most of the book in a despairing haze, being moved around like a pawn by authority figures.

This was such a deliberately and consistently grim novel that I ended up sorry that I read it, and I rarely feel that way. The first two books were dark in ways which logically followed from the premise: the story was about kids forced to kill in gladiatorial combat, and kids were killed in gladiatorial combat. This one is dark in ways which logically follow from the premise, but also in ways which don't. Sometimes people act out of character solely so that horrible things can happen, and a climactic scene makes absolutely no sense solely so that the most horrible thing of all can happen.

My usual example separating inherently depressing from gratuitously depressing is a Holocaust novel in which everyone dies in a concentration camp, and a Holocaust novel in which everyone dies in a concentration camp except for the protagonist's true love, who is liberated, runs joyously across the street to meet her, and is squashed by a cement truck. Not only was the cement truck not a logical consequence of genocide, but by adding implausible elements to make genocide even more depressing, the entire novel and so the genocide it contains seem less real, and so defeats the author's purpose.

Mockingjay is a cement truck novel.

It’s not necessary to write a book which is no fun in order to point out that war is bad, nor is it necessary to make the book excruciatingly depressing in order to convey that the heroine is depressed. Aristotle wrote all about the paradox of audiences getting profound enjoyment out of watching horrific tragedies unfold onstage. The emotional state of the protagonist does not have to be inflicted on the audience to make the audience to understand how the protagonist is feeling.

The first spoiler cut only describes the first sixteen pages, which is one of the most stunningly depressing openings I’ve ever read.

The page numbering starts at 3.

Page 3: Katniss stumbles despairingly through the firebombed ash of her district.

Page 5: Drugged, concussed, and depressed, Katniss stares at the mounds of corpses and blames herself.

Page 6: 90% of her district is dead and it's all her fault.

Page 8: District 13, which she’d hoped was the Promised Land or at least okay, turned out to be a fascist hellhole.

Page 9: Peeta is being tortured by Capitol and his entire family is dead. Katniss breathes in the ashes of her friends.

Page 11. Finnick is brain-damaged and/or having a total mental breakdown.

Page 12. It’s revealed that Cinna died off-page. (Cinna was one of my favorite characters and at least deserved an on-page death.)

Page 13. Yay! A moment of happiness! Prim's cat Buttercup survived... by eating the corpses of Katniss's friends.

Page 16: It’s revealed that the girls who helped Katniss in the previous book, Bonnie and Twill, died horribly off-page. This is completely gratuitous - they didn't even have to be mentioned and it would have been completely plausible if they'd escaped, but are brought up just so Katniss can know that they burned to death.

Had I been normally browsing, I would probably have given up there. However, I was determined to stay at air-conditioned Borders to prevent heat exhaustion, so I continued, cool but depressed.

The next spoiler cut is for the rest of the book.

Katniss is depressed, despairing, and unmotivated on page one. There is nowhere to go from there, other than "total mental breakdown." (Or up, if it was the kind of book in which up was a possibility.) When she grimly realizes that Capitol will use Peeta to break her, I thought, "That's unnecessary!"

I was bored by the PTSD in this book. It felt very textbook, especially as everyone had the exact same symptoms. It was like "flashbacks, check; nightmares, check; jumpiness, check; loss of concentration, check; total despair, check." It wasn’t that it was wrong, it’s that neither people nor mental illnesses are cookie-cut-outs.

When Katniss briefly feels like she’s done something good by comforting the wounded, the hospital is promptly bombed and everyone is killed. The one person from 13 whom Katniss likes gets his legs blown off and dies in agony. Her entire team, except for Gale and Peeta, dies horribly.

Finnick, once a source of light relief and interesting complexity in that he seemed to enjoy his status as a sex symbol despite its horrific origins, reveals that actually he was a sex slave and was being raped and forced to pretend to enjoy it. He’s borderline catatonic for much of the book. When he recovers, gets married, and is happy, I immediately thought, “He’s so dead!” Sure enough, he is soon after eaten by lizard-dogs.

Katniss spends most of the book being passive, hospitalized, or manipulated by others. Nothing she does of her own accord in the entire book, up until the moment when she kills Coin, ever succeeds. Even her mission to kill Snow fails. Though apparently it provided a diversion, so the rebels could... kill their own medics, including Katniss’s sister. What?

The final cherry of doom on the sundae of despair is the death of Prim. The completely nonsensical way this came about illustrates how so much of the grimness was shoehorned in for its own sake, not because the story logically led there. If the bombs were dropped by the rebels, why did the rebels let their own medics rush in to be killed? If the bombs were dropped by Capitol, why would they take out their own shield?

The fact that we didn't even see the long-term consequences of Prim’s death made it seem dually wrong: only there to rub in that everything sucks, AND to make the happy ending even more unconvincing!

By the end, Katniss is utterly broken and suicidal, Peeta has been psychologically destroyed, Gale has turned into a monster, and nearly everyone Katniss ever loved or even met is dead. In this context, the happy ending is ludicrous. Also, her "choice" of Peeta is meaningless, as Gale took himself out of the running by becoming a brutal terrorist who directly or indirectly killed her sister, and living alone, in the state she was in, would have quickly resulted in her suicide.

Apart from her personal life, if we are to believe a better government was put in, who put it there? Everyone we know is either dead, tending their garden, or evil. So... offpage people we never met fixed everything? But from what we’ve seen, the rebels are exactly as evil as the tyranny. (Not actually a profound point, by the way, and also one which inherently supports the status quo: if a rebellion will kill a lot of people only to install an equally evil government, then it’s wrong to rebel.) I'm fine with moral greyness and both sides doing terrible things, but the rebels were so awful that I didn't see how they’d be better than Capitol, other than not holding Hunger Games.

Regarding Katniss’s agreement to hold rebel Hunger Games, I interpreted that as a plot to kill Coin, based on Katniss's exchange with Haymitch. But it's never confirmed whether that was correct, or whether she did mean it but changed her mind at the last moment, or what she thought would happen after Coin died. It’s Katniss's one moment of triumph in the entire book, and we never learn what she thought she was doing.

If you haven’t started the series but you want to, I would recommend reading only the first book and possibly the second (though that one ends on a bigger cliffhanger), then writing your own ending.

The Hunger Games - Library Edition

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games) - Library Edition

Battle Royale: Director's Cut (Collector's Edition). Warning: very violent and disturbing, doubly so because it’s live-action and the teenagers look like (and I think are mostly played by) real teenagers, not young-looking adults.
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