Tag: The Hunger Games

17/10, Savo–Rezigno (TBA Readalong)

And we’re back. I’m hoping regular readers of this TBA readalong didn’t enjoy that break too much, since it would suggest you’re not having a great time being bombarded with posts, but if it was a relief, I can’t say I blame you; I’ve thrown kind of a lot of words at you 😅 For those just joining us, we’re following the story of The Butterfly Assassin in real time according to the book’s chronology, and I’m talking about the writing process and worldbuilding. We’re getting into the big dramatic plot moments now, so I recommend jumping back to 17/09, Eraro, to start at the beginning!

It’s now the seventeenth of October. The last time we saw Isabel, she was in hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness – still dying, her decline only slowed by the interventions of Daragh and other Comma medics, not halted. For the last few days, she’s been moving further and further past the point where recovery seems possible, but she’s not all the way gone yet.

And on the seventeenth of October, Isabel remembers. A nightmare, a dream, a memory: it’s the missing piece she’s been lacking, the memory that tells her that the reason she can’t break the code on that one page of notes, the one that might be crucial to saving her, is because it was never her father’s code in the first place – it was hers. She’s the one who designed the poison this way, and she’s the one who wrote it down.

With the last of her strength, Isabel gives Daragh the formula of the antidote, and then her heart stops.

She never thought dying would hurt like this. She would have fought harder, if she knew it would hurt like this.

This is… a dramatic moment. We have the only moment in the book with non-standard formatting, as Isabel’s heartbeat slows and stops on page, and then we have the shortest chapter in the whole book (97 words, if I remember correctly). And by making Isabel the creator of the poison, I made her the agent of her own destruction – but also gave her agency over her own salvation. It’s her knowledge that’s the key to the antidote, not the invisible work of off-screen others.

This was a significant change from early drafts, where Isabel had almost no role in creating her own antidote, but she also had less responsibility in those drafts for the poison itself. Like I said in an earlier post, it was important to me that Isabel is at least partially responsible for her own suffering, and that this doesn’t mean she deserves the pain. But it was also a crucial part in making sure she had narrative agency, and wasn’t only suffering at the hands of others.

I love my tiny <100-word chapter here. I haven’t done it anywhere else in the trilogy; I didn’t want to make a habit of it. It works because it’s the only one, because this moment needs to be dramatic, because Isabel’s organs are failing and her heart has stopped and from her point of view, there’s a strong chance the story ends here.

The reader knows – or thinks they know – that it can’t end here, because there’s still a solid chunk of book left. Isabel’s a third-person narrator, but we’re still very closely in her head and we never see others’ perspectives on the story, so it functions like a first-person narrative. And we do not expect first-person narratives to kill off their sole narrators.

Now, this is where I can hear my beta readers sniggering in the background, because they know full well that I have killed off my sole first-person narrators in the past (and also my first-person narrators in multi-POV books). I have written more first-person death scenes than anyone should write, probably; it’s a problem, I’m incorrigible when it comes to killing them off, I accept this. I had one book where I killed the first-person narrator twice. (She died. Came back wrong. Died again. It was a whole thing.)

What I’m saying is, if you ever pick up one of my books and it has a first-person narrator, do not assume that this means they are safe. They are not. Nobody is safe. I can and will write a first-person death scene. (And ain’t that always a weird experience as a writer. The emotional hangover is real.)

But. Fine. Let’s assume this is not permadeath for Isabel, because we have 150 pages left of the book and also two sequels. We still need to feel it, though. The life-or-death stakes don’t mean anything if death was never really on the table, and the last-minute recovery can’t be a painless, easy experience or it starts to feel like we’re cheating. There has to be a cost to letting a character get that close to death, and this is it. The white heat of agony.

Sorry, Isabel. I feel like she’s really going through it in this part.

These scenes, as you can probably deduce from everything I’ve told you about the journey this book’s edits took, originate from the sixth draft, the AMM rewrite. There, they take more or less the exact form they have in the published book, barring a few stylistic tweaks here and there, so there’s nothing I can show you from those earlier versions that you haven’t already seen in the finished book.

But there’s also a confession I need to make, because while I can’t be one hundred percent sure of this, I think I may… possibly… have stolen a line here? Specifically, the line that opens chapter 24:

There is no relief in waking, only noise.

Bearing in mind that I wrote this line in 2019, and at the time I hadn’t reread the Hunger Games trilogy since around 2013 (I reread them in 2021; that post was written after I sold The Butterfly Assassin, but before that was announced), this was at most a half-remembered homage and possibly a complete accident, but this line has a predecessor. In Mockingjay.

Finnick and I sit for a long time in silence, watching the knots bloom and vanish, before I can ask, ‘How do you bear it?’

Finnick looks at me in disbelief. ‘I don’t, Katniss! Obviously, I don’t. I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking.’

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

Okay, it’s five words, and an entirely relatable sentiment for anyone who has ever woken up from something awful to find nothing has improved, so I doubt anyone would be stringing me up for plagiarism even if they could demonstrate that I did this deliberately (and, I will be honest, I don’t know if I did or not). But these days, having noticed the overlap, I prefer to think of it as intertextuality: a commentary on YA books about trauma and violence, about getting trapped in a cycle and becoming somebody you never wanted to be, because you haven’t been given any way out.

When my publisher first started using The Hunger Games as a comp title, I wasn’t sure about it. It was such a global phenomenon that it felt presumptuous, long enough ago that it felt like a throwback (and therefore less relevant to the current market), and my impression of those books had been shaped by the films to the point where the main thing this evoked was “competition” and “love triangle”, neither of which are focus points for my work. (Especially not the latter!)

But when I actually reread the trilogy, I saw a lot of shared themes: the trauma; the societal cycles of violence that disproportionately impact on young people, especially disadvantaged young people; the way that survival instincts and protective instincts can override all else; the impossibility of breaking a cycle while justice and punishment are conflated, etc. And I became extremely okay with that comparison, because it suggested to me that books about trauma, books where teenage girls are messy and violent and awful and hurting, can be hugely popular and influential, even when people keep telling us that nobody wants to read about despair.

Anyway. I’ve confessed my possible theft. Isabel is dying. Daragh has the formula for the antidote, but will it be enough to save her? It’ll be a few days before we find out – on the twentieth of October – so for now, it’s over to you.

How did you feel in this moment, when Isabel’s heart stopped? Do you like weird formatting in books, or does it put you off? If you read the book as an ebook, did you even get to experience the full drama, or did it ruin it by squishing everything into left-alignment? (Because that would be tragic.)

Leave your answers, and any other thoughts, in the comment section below.

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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