Category: Books

What is YA, anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes a book YA. I write both YA and adult: in June, I was editing a YA book; now, I’m editing an adult book. I also read both YA and adult, but although I’ve stopped tracking my reading in any great detail and therefore don’t have stats to hand, I would suspect that I’ve been leaning more towards adult books in recent months.

This makes sense: I’m 25. I’m an adult. I’m worried about things like finding a job and being able to afford rent and the fact that I’ve hit the age where a bunch of my school friends are getting married and some of them are having babies — on purpose. The further I get from school and teenage hormones and so on, the less relevant YA would be to me… or so you’d think, anyway.

But there have been a fair few conversations recently about how that’s not necessarily the case, since there’s a huge adult readership for YA books. And again, this makes sense: people like a particular type of story, they enjoy the pacing and themes, they keep reading it. One of the side effects, as has been pointed out over and over again, is that since those adult readers have more money and buying power than the teens the books are written for, they end up being the people the publishers market to, and YA starts skewing older and older…

There have been a lot of discussions about how to “fix” that phenomenon. Breaking down YA into more categories, for example — because realistically, 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds aren’t looking for the same thing from fiction. These lower/upper YA divides exist, but they’re rarely labelled or demarcated. Others think the problem is that NA (New Adult) didn’t take off as a category — books about and aimed at the 18-25-ish age range — so those readers are looking to YA to fill the gap.

I’m not here to suggest any solutions, or to point out more problems. But I have been pondering what this means for my own work.

Most of my YA has always sat slightly uneasily within the category. It’s upper YA, aimed at older teenagers, and some of it would fit firmly into the “crossover” category, where you would expect it to appeal to an adult audience too. While I have some projects that I think are more firmly YA, I also have others where I’m not sure where they fit, and it gets harder once they’re speculative. The age of protagonists is often a good indicator, but while a book about seventeen-year-olds in a contemporary school setting is probably going to fit neatly into YA, a book about seventeen-year-olds in a fantasy society where that’s considered to be an adult might not.

Take To Run With The Hound, for example. This retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge that I drafted in 2018 has a young protagonist — in fact, both main characters are children at the start, and one is only 17 by the end (the other is 21). But nothing about it feels YA. The characters are that young mainly because that’s (roughly) the age they are in the original stories/myths, but what those ages mean in context is wildly different from what they mean to us in modern society. While the book might appeal to some teen readers, it’s not written for teen readers, and YA’s dominant themes of identity formation, “first” experiences, growing independence, and so on aren’t present/important in the story.

More difficult is the YA book I was editing last month. I know it’s YA, but I also know it fits neatly into the crossover space, and sometimes I find myself second-guessing elements of the teen characters. It’s a fairly dark book, with a lot of trauma and violence, and sometimes I wonder if I’m contributing to the whole “YA books that are really for adults” issue. And yet… I wrote the first draft of that book when I was eighteen. I created that character when I was sixteen. She has been shaped and reshaped and drastically rewritten in the years that have passed, to the point where it’s hard to see how much of that original character is still there, but when I reread the first draft I’m always struck by how much the “vibes” have stayed the same, despite nearly every plot point changing. And those were distinctly teenage vibes, because I was a teenager.

A selfie of me at eighteen. I'm side-on to the camera, sitting with my knees up. I have a slightly messy pixie cut and glasses with a red and black plastic frame. I'm wearing a blue and red blanket poncho over a long-sleeved shirt and jeans; I'm hugging my knees with one arm.
Me at 18. Although I will acknowledge that (a) I haven’t aged much and (b) I still wear that blanket poncho daily.

But most YA is written by adults, and in any case that book is as much the product of 20-something me than of teen me, so that can’t be the standard I judge it by. How can I tell what’s YA and what isn’t? How do I know if my teenage characters are realistic, or if I’m writing mini adults and simply claiming they’re sixteen? I often read books and think absolutely nothing would change about the plot or characterisation if a character were aged up by 10 years, and in fact it would probably make it more believable. I don’t want to write those kinds of teen characters, but I also know very few actual teens, and having been a weirdo even when I was a teenager myself can make it harder to judge what teen behaviour looks like…

The themes and messages of the book are, I think, a huge factor in determining where it stands in terms of age category, but even there it can be tricky. The novel mentioned above deals strongly with wanting to have control over your own body/life, rather than having adults/parents make decisions for you, which I think is something that a lot of teenagers can relate to. It’s certainly something that was born of my own experiences as a seventeen-year-old grappling with chronic pain and mental illness. The adult book I’m editing now, a retelling of Bisclavret, is also about wanting control over your own body/life, but from a very different angle. Similar theme, different vibes, and I’ve never thought of this book as anything other than adult. Why? What makes one different to the other? Some nebulous, hard-to-pin-down vibe? It can’t be the sex scenes, because I’ve read YA way more graphic than my poetic fade-to-blacks…

A few days ago I stumbled upon an outline I wrote this time last year for a possible future project. Not a completely new book, but an attempt to ‘rescue’ a shelved one — a book called The Knight Shift that I put aside c. 2016 after realising it was fundamentally flawed in a way that couldn’t be fixed. This new outline didn’t attempt to patch up the original storyline, but it took elements of it and wove a new plot around them, in a way that both fixed the original problem and made a much more interesting and socially relevant book.

I looked at it and thought, Oh, that’s quite good, actually. I should write that.

A selfie of me, holding a practice longsword with a white nylon blade. I'm wearing a grey long-sleeved top and I have short dark hair.
The Knight Shift revolved around a secret society of modern-day knights, so my brief adventures with HEMA in 2016 would have come in handy for accuracy in the fight scenes.

The book is, once again, an upper YA book. The main character is a fresher at university, so she’s 18 and probably turns 19 during the book. Her closest friends are 17/18 and 19/20. The themes include independence, trying to forge your own identity away from your parents, and figuring out which of the principles and beliefs you’ve inherited are ones you want to keep (or even fight for). Arguably, it also uses the YA cliché of “no adults believe that something’s wrong, so the teenage protagonist has to fix it themselves”.

But, since the book is set at university and not school and many of the characters are legally adults, I found myself interrogating my gut feeling that it was YA. Did it need to be? Was that the most useful category for it to be in?

I found myself coming back to a comment I’d made to a friend upon rereading the outline: “the one flaw in this plot is the idea that exposing corruption and violence would ever actually stop it … I feel like for a YA novel, you kind of have to pretend that it would, but in reality, would it?

Because here’s the thing. We have all these YA books in which plucky teens stand up to corrupt governments and dystopian regimes… and it works. And yet if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few years (and particularly the last 18 months), it’s that very often, exposing corruption and violence does absolutely nothing. “Plucky teens” stand up every day for gun control, climate action, clean water, justice, and so often nothing happens. Oh, the government’s selling weapons to regimes that enact human rights abuses? Nobody’s stopping them. Ministers are breaking the exact rules they themselves implement? They have a mildly embarrassing day on the internet and continue with their lives. It feels like there are no consequences.

But that would be a bleak book — and dare I say it, an adult book. A literary novel might say there is no hope. A military SF novel might say we can only hope to kill them before they kill us. A poignant historical novel might say, some tragedies are unavoidable.

A YA book… maybe a YA book should tell us that change is possible.

Tweet by Marcus Vance (@MarcusCVance) from July 4, 2021.

"Scifi books:

MG: My classmate is an alien!

YA: No adults believe this is an alien so I have to beat it alone

Hard SF: Let's learn from these dead aliens that aren't quite dead

Military SF: KILL ALL ALIENS

Dark SF: GET KILLED BY ALL ALIENS

Erotic SF: BANG ALL ALIENS"
This post was inspired at least partially by this breakdown of SF categories, and similar tweets.

I’m not saying that YA books should lie to their readers. Not everything in real life has a happy ending, and it would do teen readers a disservice to suggest that in a YA book, evil should always be defeated. When I was a teenager, patronising me was absolutely the way to make me put down a book and never pick it back up. There has to be nuance, and there is space on the YA shelves for sad endings, bittersweet endings, characters who don’t always succeed. And yet I also think YA fiction is about empowering younger readers and teaching them that the world can be changed — that they, through their actions and voices, can change the world.

The outline I wrote had a bold, brave, eighteen-year-old protagonist whose principles and love for her friends led to her changing the world for the better, because when nobody in authority seemed to be taking action, she did it herself. And that, I think, makes it a YA book. Because although I didn’t sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a novel that Empowers Teens™,” that is a huge part of what the genre does, particularly the more dystopian/fantasy/thriller end of the spectrum.

I could age that protagonist up and change the setting slightly, but I don’t think it would make the book an adult novel, because the themes and tone of it are firmly part of that YA “coming of age and standing up to authority” kind of genre.

In the end, I don’t think there’s always a clear line between age categories. Of course there isn’t. People mature at different speeds, and have different life experiences and perspectives. What might seem “precocious” or, conversely, “immature” for one character could be somebody’s reality — some eighteen-year-olds are working full time and living fully independently, while some twenty-five-year-olds live with their parents and still have to be home by a certain time at night to avoid worrying them. But what makes or breaks which category a book most belongs to is rarely the protagonist’s birthday, or whether or not they’re at school — it’s the themes, and the character’s place in society, and the approach the book takes to grappling with those.

So I don’t know if I’ll ever write the book that outline was for, although I think it would be interesting. But if I did, it would be as a YA book. And the process of figuring that out has been useful to me in working out what it is that makes some of my books YA and some of them adult, even when the ideas at the heart of them overlap. I still don’t know exactly what the difference is, but I know that it’s there, and I guess for every new book I write, I’ll just have to make that decision all over again.

Or, alternatively, I’ll keep writing weird nonsense that doesn’t neatly fit into a box (“genrequeer”, as I like to call it), and let beta readers/my agent/future editors decide what genre and category it belongs to. Because I’ll be honest with you: I am bad at labels and boxes and categories, and I absolutely 100% overthink all of them.

Still. If I didn’t overthink things, this blog probably wouldn’t exist. So here we are. Sorry / you’re welcome (delete as appropriate).


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A Medievalist Reads ‘Blackheart Knights’ by Laure Eve

I’ve drifted away from reviewing books over the last couple of years, and I’ve also developed … not an aversion, but a certain wariness towards retellings where I’m too familiar with the source material, as I inevitably end up getting annoyed at them. But when the publicist for Jo Fletcher Books reached out to me about Blackheart Knights, I realised I was going to have to break both of those habits:

From the acclaimed YA author of The Graces comes the first adult novel – a unique retelling of the Arthurian legend, set in a London where the knights are celebrities, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money – think Chamelot meets Gotham! Full of magic and secrets, Blackheart Knights is a wonderfully immersive read. It’s dark, it’s sexy and Laure’s expert world-building will have you gripped.

Was it possible, I thought, that somebody had finally written the weird, queer, knight-focused Arthurian retelling I was craving? One that recognised that the individual knights and their quests were the main draw in many of the medieval stories, not Arthur himself, who is usually more of a background figure? One that did something creative enough, strange enough, new enough to get past my inherent suspicion of Arthurian retellings?

I needed to find out. And when I saw the cover, I needed it even more.

So, I signed up to participate in the social media blast, Jo Fletcher Books generously sent me a proof copy, and here we are. Let’s talk about Blackheart Knights.

A photograph of 'Blackheart Knights' by Laura Eve. The cover features a knight riding a motorbike amidst bright swirls of electricity and/or magic. The book has been positioned so that it appears to be standing on Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Malory's "Morte D'arthur", and Simon Armitage's "The Death of King Arthur".
My elderly copy of Malory wasn’t photogenic enough to make it into this picture.

First of all, this is an intensely difficult book to review, because I don’t want to spoil anything. While as a chronic re-reader, I’m wary of anything that can be undermined by spoilers — shock reveals can only be a shock once — there are definitely parts of this book where you benefit from going in blind. I want you to have the same experience I did, of dropping the book on the bed after a reveal, swearing loudly to yourself, and feeling like a complete fool for not putting two and two together sooner.

It’s pretty rare that I get completely bamboozled by books, and I have a weird talent for guessing plot twists based on nothing at all; I once guessed at random that a character was another character’s future self travelling back in time, thinking there was no way that could possibly be right, and… turned out to be right. I was mad at myself for spoiling that one, I can tell you.

So when a book does manage to mislead and misdirect me to the point where I don’t figure things out, I’m always as much impressed as I am annoyed at myself — especially if it’s something that, as a medievalist, I really should know. In this regard, Blackheart Knights reminded me of the experience of reading American Gods for the first time, and how angry I was that I hadn’t figured out sooner who Wednesday was, considering I was preparing to study Old Norse at uni…

But is this book the knight-centric book I was expecting or hoping for? Not exactly. Arthur — Artorius Dracones — is still a significant character, and the overall plot/vibes owe more to Malory etc than to Chrétien de Troyes, as often seems to be the case. (Having said that, there were a few deliciously unusual details, such as a reference to Lailoken, which made me very happy.) The stories of the knights are tangled together with the larger narrative, in the way that suits modern storytelling, rather than reflecting the episodic, individualised ways their stories are often presented by medieval authors. Of your classic Round Table knights, only a few appeared, and weren’t always easy to identify because of how Eve played with the naming.

It is, however, the most I’ve enjoyed an Arthurian retelling in a long time.

There are a few reasons for that, but one of the most important is that for a long time, I couldn’t tell what stories it was retelling. There was enough creativity and invention to disguise the source material enough that it never started feeling predictable. In fact, for a while I wondered if it was even retelling any specific story at all, or whether it was more the concept of an Arthurian court that Eve was borrowing, so it caught me out whenever the story circled back to an ‘expected’ element. I never felt like I knew exactly where we were going, which meant I stayed hooked.

It also wasn’t trying to be historically accurate in any way, which should be obvious from the blurb: motorbikes and magic and the media abound. I am, for the most part, very tired of Arthurian retellings which try to be ‘historical’, which generally means setting them in some nebulous early medieval world, stripping out all the weirdness of the original stories and making all the most obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. They’re also rarely actually accurate, particularly in regards to their insistence on removing all the Christian elements of the Arthurian stories. While Blackheart Knights has its own religious system, Christianity also exists, which I found to be an interesting choice; the fact that faith seemed to play a role at all was refreshing, considering how prominent it is in the medieval sources.

And to my delight, Eve also doesn’t make obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. The book is set in a queernorm world — e.g. our heteronormativity and gender roles don’t seem to exist, at least within the present setting. There’s a brief reference to women not always having been permitted to train as knights, but this is long gone, as evidenced by the fact that our main character is Red, a girl training to be a knight. She’s also bisexual, or something similar — there’s no discussion of terminology, but that speaks to a world where labels aren’t needed because sexuality isn’t categorised particularly.

There are also two nonbinary characters who use they/them pronouns. Again, there’s never any discussion of terminology or a forced explanation: they’re just there on the page, using neutral pronouns. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen two they/them characters in a book that wasn’t explicitly about trans stuff, and the fact it was so normalised and never questioned was refreshing. It’s weird how books never feel the need to specify, “Art was a boy”, but often when there’s a nonbinary character, authors feel the need to point this out. But Eve just introduced Garad and Dario with they/them pronouns and never felt the need to shoe-horn in a reason. Most excitingly, Garad is a knight — let the version of me who loves to wave a sword around rejoice!

Throughout the book, the past and present are interwoven: Art becoming King, and the early years of his rule, and Red’s training as a knight. Because I never figured out where the story was going until it got there, I was kept hooked by this dual timeline, trying to work out what we were building up to, and Eve did a masterful job of misleading me and then pulling the rug from under my feet with a reveal that made me question my understanding up until that point. I normally don’t love dual timelines (I’m good at ignoring chapter headings, so I tend to get confused), but these two threads felt distinct enough to minimise any confusion, and it kept the whole thing very compelling. I ended up staying up until 1:15am to finish it, because I had to know where we were going.

The worldbuilding was, as promised, immersive, although that did make the opening of the book a little challenging as I tried to get my head around the world and the unfamiliar terminology. I felt we didn’t necessarily see as much of this world as I’d have liked; I’m not sure if there’s to be a sequel (though based on the ending, there’s a space for one), but if there is, I’d like to see more about how the world works. We have seven kingdoms, one of which is London; another is Kernow, but what are the others? Do they map to their current real-world locations? I could also have used a map of this version of London, but maybe there’s one in the finished version of the book.

That the book is set in London seemed a slightly strange choice. The creative worldbuilding and use of language means it didn’t feel much like our London, and could realistically have been anywhere, so I wondered why Eve hadn’t chosen a place with more obvious Arthurian resonances. Some of the Brittonic-sounding placenames (Cair Lleon) seemed odd transplanted into such a seemingly ‘English’ location. However, the geography was different enough for it not to annoy me the way some Anglicisations of Arthur do, so this was more of a question mark on my part than a flaw.

Relatedly, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on linguistically. Not being set in our world, there’s no reason that the names and terminology should follow a logical pattern based on our history, but it was still a little puzzling. There were plenty of Brittonic names and a fair few Gaelic ones too, but the names for types of magic users seemed to be Old English, and Latin, or a version of it, also seems to exist.

This wasn’t a flaw — I actually enjoyed how many different influences there seemed to be, because Arthuriana has never been limited to one country or language; from its Welsh origins it very quickly found a foothold in France, England, and beyond. But it did make it a little more challenging for me to figure out some of the worldbuilding, because I was probably overthinking it and looking for logic where there wasn’t necessarily any. I couldn’t figure out whether this terminology was associated with specific places or people-groups (e.g. was Old English used for ‘godchildren’, those with magical powers, because they’re underground and hidden, compared to the Latin-sounding name of the ruling family?), or if the world of Blackheart Knights was very much a melting pot of cultures, but I’d have liked to have more of an explanation for that, as well as for whether people spoke different languages or whether they’re only reflected in the proper nouns. This is probably just me being a nerd, though.

The blurb above doesn’t quite explain the setup with the knights and their televised fights — it’s for more than fame and money that they fight. They’re basically extremely violent lawyers, fighting to settle disputes (although the knights themselves aren’t supposed to know what the fight’s about, in case they end up throwing the fight or otherwise influencing the outcome). This actually felt pretty medieval to me — there are a lot of stories where a knight fights on behalf of a maiden in travails, and of course wins, because he’s in the right and because he’s the coolest. Having them belong to a ‘stable’ and be hired out to particular claimants was less medieval, since the procedure in medieval texts seems to be ‘find knight in the middle of nowhere, possibly in need of rescuing himself, and ask him to help you, calling in a favour if you have to’, but that suited the setting and gave it a modern, commercialised twist.

Having said that, this setup really only provided the background to the main characters’ machinations; I felt perhaps it could have been more central. I was kind of hoping that two knights who cared about each other would end up fighting, like Yvain and Gawain at the end of The Knight of the Lion, but I think I have a type when it comes to making friends fight each other. But it was only after I finished the book that I felt the lack of more development of that concept, not while reading it, and I think it’s a symptom of the fact that the worldbuilding here felt a lot bigger than one book alone, so I’ll be intrigued to know if there’s a sequel, and if so, where the plot might go next…

I’ll tell you nothing more about the story itself, because I really do think this is a book that rewards reading without foreknowledge. This means I can’t show off my Arthurian expertise or explain any of the references, but since some of them took me until the final chapters to get, I feel like I’ve surrendered my authority in that regard! So I’ll just tell you that for the most part, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which kept me up far too late at night. Finally, an Arthurian retelling that didn’t annoy me — can it be true? (There have been others, but not recently, and several major disappointments in between…)

I still await my Chrétien-esque knights-centric Arthurian novel, ideally featuring Yvain and his lion, but I had a lot of fun being bamboozled and misled by Laure Eve in the meantime. And while I’m not sure anything will quite compare to the experience of reading it for the first time, I look forward to rereading one day and spotting all the clues I missed this time around.

So this medievalist’s judgment? Fun! With some intriguing references that’ll make you feel clever when you spot them, but enough creative divergences from the source material to stop it becoming predictable.

I’d love to give you my medievalist’s opinion on other retellings, Arthurian or otherwise, so please drop suggestions in the comments. And if Blackheart Knights sounds up your street, you can find it on Amazon UK (affiliate link) or on Bookshop.org (normal link) — or of course at your local bookshop!


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Rereading Katniss

Over the last few days, I’ve been rereading the Hunger Games trilogy for the first time in years.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but with the libraries closed and my copies in London, there were a number of significant barriers in the way. However, when I found myself back in the UK temporarily for medical reasons (essential travel) and therefore reunited, in the short term, with my books, I decided now was the time.

The Hunger Games was, of course, a massive phenomenon in the world of YA fiction, impossible to ignore. I won’t pretend I was ahead of the trend on that one, because I wasn’t; there are very few major YA books from the past 15 years where I’ve been an early adopter, especially since teen me was often snobbish about anything that seemed too popular. But I vividly remember the first time I read the books, racing through all three of them in the space of about a day and a half. I never bought into the ironic, Capitol-esque marketing ploy of “Team Peeta or Team Gale?” because as far as I was concerned, that wasn’t at all what interested me about the books.

I wanted to reread because I found, recently, that I couldn’t remember them in detail; I was also interested because of comparisons others had drawn with my own work. Obviously, I’m not about to start using THG as a comp title — it’s old enough now that doing so would only make me look like somebody who hasn’t read any YA for a decade, for a start — but I wanted to see how apt those parallels might or might not be, and whether I could learn anything from it.

I don’t know that what stood out to me now was what appealed to me as a teenager; I don’t have a strong enough memory of my sixteen-year-old self to be sure. But I definitely found myself engaging with the books both as a reader (emotional investment) and as a writer (analysing Collins’ craft and narrative choices).

I was struck by Katniss: how unlikeable she is. How uncompromising. Not because she thinks she’s better than the other characters or prides herself on being different or anything like that, but because her response seems to be, I don’t know how to behave the way you expect me to when it’s so antithetical to my experience of the world. Is that a neurodivergent vibe I get from her? Perhaps. It’s obvious, of course, that the way the Capitol expects her to behave is irrational and artificial, for a girl from her background — perhaps any of the District 12 girls would have reacted the same way. I’m not sure.

But the thing about Katniss is that no matter how calculating, how selfish, how violent she becomes in her attempts to survive, she doesn’t stop being a sympathetic character. This fascinates me, as somebody who tends to write morally grey characters who do terrible things but still wants my readers to care about them. Part of it with Katniss is the old tried and true method — if everybody around them is worse, you root for the awful character regardless. Part of it, I think, is that she feels such self-disgust and is so unflinching in her cruel assessments of her own character that she almost absolves the audience of any responsibility to do the same. You don’t need to judge her, because she’s already done it.

The fact that she sees herself in this way helps, obviously, with maintaining sympathy even after she’s killed and so on: it would be harder to root for a character who enjoyed it. You constantly have this sense with Katniss that she’s trapped, and has no other choice, but somehow this doesn’t translate into her feeling like a passive character who only reacts — even though a lot of the time, that is almost the case. She isn’t given the information she needs to make choices, and she isn’t given the power, either. But she never reacts the way people around her are expecting her to react, which I think is what helps the plot avoid becoming predictable.

I was also struck by the intensity of emotional consequences in the books. I’m not about to suggest THG is unique among YA dystopias in portraying trauma and depression — but I do think there’s something unusual in how profoundly events affect Katniss. In how it depicts her nightmares and panic attacks and depression, which pervade books two and three. Some of it’s obvious, and some of it’s more subtle, but no traumatising event is ever allowed to pass without consequences. Even when physical damage is ‘repaired’ by Capitol doctors, the mental scars remain.

Too often, I think, characters aren’t given the space to be screwed up after what they go through. After a book’s worth of trauma, they then go on to lead a revolution, and somehow they hold it together. But Katniss… doesn’t. And I feel like this gets overlooked in popular discussion of the series, possibly because the films were less able to portray those aspects than the books, or because of the media focus on the ‘glamorous’ and ‘romantic’ elements. People talk about how Katniss is a badass, and yeah, she is, but how often do we talk about how she’s also depressed, haunted by nightmares, intensely traumatised…?

As a friend put it in a conversation yesterday, there’s something defiant about Katniss’s emotional responses. The Capitol doesn’t want her to be visibly traumatised. The revolution doesn’t want her to be taking depression naps in a cupboard somewhere. They all want her to pretend. And she doesn’t. Not enough, anyway. There’s an “understated and bleak rebellion of I Am Going To Continue To Be Screwed Up About This, Actually”, as my friend said — Katniss’s refusal to be “just a piece in their games” continues in her unwillingness, or inability, to let it be just a game. And once you acknowledge the horror and the violence of the murder of children… it’s hard to leave it behind.

This trilogy stands out to me because it allows Katniss not only to be unlikeable and closed-off right from the very beginning, but also because it allows her emotional responses to be so powerful and all-consuming. I wonder if this is why a lot of people were less keen on the third book. Yes, some of the choices she makes are illogical, irrational, unwise. Yes, she spends a lot of the book doing not very much (although I have to say I can relate to the depression naps). But that’s because she’s traumatised. And seeing that on the page — seeing the way that nothing Katniss went through can be brushed off — gives the narrative more weight, and makes the losses and the suffering more powerful.

Katniss doesn’t soften, or become more likeable. She fractures, and turns her broken edges outwards because that’s the only way she knows how to survive. And I admire that, actually. I see it in some of my own characters, and I found myself thinking how books like THG created a space on the shelves where my own stories could exist. Stories about screwed up, unlikeable, bitter teenage girls who do awful things because they want to survive. THG didn’t invent those stories. But it definitely gave them a foothold in YA that I’m not sure they’d have had otherwise.

And then there’s the ending. As a teen, I hated it. I didn’t know why Katniss had to end up with anyone. As an adult, I feel differently. There are still elements of it that bother me — I don’t love that Katniss ended up having children, somewhat reluctantly, after having been adamant since book one that she didn’t want them. I’ve always read her as somewhere on the asexual spectrum, and that hasn’t changed either.

But: where teen me saw her eventual relationship with Peeta as a disappointing inevitability, adult me sees a traumatised figure finally allowing herself to heal enough to love somebody. Where teen me saw obligation, adult me sees choice. After losing so many people that she cares about, Katniss allows herself to care about somebody again. She allows herself to love, even after so much loss. She allows herself to take the risk of loving somebody, when she could have closed herself off as a way of defending herself against future loss and pain.

And of course it would be Peeta. Nobody else can meet her where she is; nobody else understands, really, what she’s been through. Peeta, like Katniss, knows how it feels to trust nobody, not even himself.

I don’t know if I read it as romantic, or if it’s more of a queerplatonic intimacy that I see between them, but on this reread, I didn’t see compromise in that ending, I saw healing, alongside the only person who could ever see Katniss for exactly who she is. Since book one, Katniss hasn’t trusted anybody with her heart. Not because of the Games — it goes back further. After her father’s death, her mother’s depression left her feeling abandoned; in that we see the roots of Katniss’s determined and defiant self-sufficiency. Gale says, She’ll pick whichever of us she thinks she can’t survive without. She’s known since she was a child that she could survive alone, because she’s had to know that.

For some characters, choosing to go it alone would be empowering. But not for Katniss. Because she’s had to, always, so choosing to rely on somebody else in any way? That’s growth. That’s healing.

The Hunger Games was a phenomenally successful trilogy, boosted by the film adaptations. There’s a lot to be said for its plot and structure and how Collins avoids repetition between the first and second book, even when ideas/situations recur. No doubt there are dozens of long reads about what made it so popular, and all of them will have different takes.

But what stood out to me on this reread was Katniss, and how raw and unfiltered her experiences get to be on the page, even while her camera crew — and the film adaptations — try to polish them into something palatable.

I don’t know if The Hunger Games was a direct influence on my own writing. I wouldn’t have pinned it down as such, but I suppose it’s inevitable on some level: everything I’ve ever read has become part of my mental landscape and will have had its effect on my writing, whether tiny or significant. I suspect there’s more unconscious influence there with THG than I might have thought before this reread. I do think, however, that whether or not it influenced the way I wrote them, The Hunger Games created a space where my stories can exist and be read, and for that, I’m grateful.


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