Top critical review
What a Mess
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 1, 2015
I may have been disappointed with "Catching Fire," but that didn't stop me from buying the final installment of the "Hunger Games" trilogy as soon as I'd finished the second book. However much the last book let me down, I was too invested in Katniss' world to not see how everything comes together. I had hoped "Mockingjay" would end the series with a bang and provide a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Once again, I found myself not only underwhelmed, but frustrated and angry by how much of a mess this book was. Spoilers follow.
After being rescued from the Quarter Quell by the rebels at the end of the last book, Katniss learns that District 12 was destroyed and only a small portion of the population survived. She also discovers that District 13 still exists, but it isn't the safe haven that people had hoped it would be. Instead, it's an underground bunker where everything is strictly controlled and regimented, and ignoring or straying from the rules is a strongly punishable offense. Worse still, Peeta was not rescued and is being held captive by the Capital, his fate unknown. Still reeling from recent events, Katniss is expected to be the symbol of the rebellion, the Mockingjay, but she isn't sure if she can fill this role or if she even wants to. With the districts steadily falling to the rebels and the attacks from the Capital getting more brutal, Katniss realizes that she has to stop President Snow, no matter what it takes...no matter the cost
This book should have been great. It has the framework to tell an empowering story of Katniss standing up for what she believes and becoming a symbol for the change she desires. The potential for action and wide reaching consequences is present, as is the possibility for a great deal of character growth and development as Katniss faces opposition not only from Panem, but also from District 13 and their plans. But "Mockingjay" doesn't deliver and instead falls tragically short on all fronts. It's a mess; everything that was done well in the first two books is mishandled here, the result being a book that is unsatisfying, frustrating, and oftentimes even boring! I've raved about Collins' ability to pace the last two novels; they were rarely boring and kept you turning the pages, desperately wanting to know what happens next. That sense of suspense and needing to read just one more page is gone here. A good seventy-five percent of this book is spent with Katniss milling about in District 13, either in a drugged daze or frantically trying to work things out in her head. When she finally gets to the Capital, the story picks up again and races to the climax, but it takes an incredibly long time to get there, and then ends on the same slow, disconnected note. Frankly, it's a chore to get through, and a book with this much promise simply should not be this boring. What happened?
Like I said, very little happens in the novel. If you go through the list of events, it seems like there are a lot of big things going on: Katniss goes to District 12, Katniss begins her life in District 13 and agrees to be the Mockingjay, she shoots some promotional videos and ends up in a firefight in District 8, District 13 is attacked and later manages to rescue Peeta, Katniss is present when District 2 is conquered by the rebels, Katniss infiltrates the Capital, important characters die, and Katniss finally gets to kill Panem's leader (sort of). See? There's a lot that happens, but it feels like most of the book drudges along with very little in the way of important events taking place. This is because Katniss either isn't there for the big events (rescuing Peeta), they happen very quickly with little time to think about or enjoy them (District 8, District 2, the bombing of District 13, and the death of the leader), and because they're interspersed with long periods where Katniss just sits in District 13 and does nothing. The infiltration of the Capital provided a level of excitement similar to that present throughout the first novel, but it's such a small part of the book that it gets lost in the pages and pages of either flying through events or moping around District 13. I couldn't bear to put the first two books down...I had a hard time wanting to pick this one up.
We don't even get a satisfying ending after slogging through page after page of Katniss lamenting over this or pondering that. I'm not the kind of reader that needs a happy ending. In fact, most "happily ever after" endings rub me the wrong way. I do, however, need a satisfying conclusion that brings closure, and that simply isn't provided here. Katniss has an intriguing discussion with President Snow about the death of her sister. Then, in a moment of apparent madness since Katniss' thoughts are too jumbled and rushed to make sense, she decides to kill President Coin, while Snow dies either as a result of his health or the mob that closed in after Coin's death. From here, Katniss spends days locked up and considering suicide before her fate is decided off screen. She's then sent back to District 12, where she spends the rest of her days in a detached daze, eventually settling down and having a couple kids, not because she wants to, but because her husband begged her to. That's it. After three books of buildup, we get a nonsensical, unsatisfying ending wherein Katniss becomes an emotional vegetable and we don't even know how the Capital and districts were affected (beyond that the arena where the Hunger Games were held has been torn down). It's rushed and feels like Collins either ran out of time while writing or didn't quite know how to finish the trilogy and therefore made a mess of it. At one point, it is revealed the Coin wanted Katniss to be killed in the rebellion as a martyr, and I can't help but think that might have been a more satisfying ending both for Katniss and the book as a whole. Perhaps the idea was to show how deeply Katniss has been damaged by what she's been through, and I get that, but her final decision and eventual fate make no sense given what we've seen of her from the first couple books and they make for a poor ending. There should be some sort of satisfying payoff for getting to the end of the series, and "Mockingjay" fails to provide it.
As can probably be expected, there are a couple deaths in the book, and they're people who are pretty significant in Katniss' life. When Rue died in "The Hunger Games," I was distraught and shed a few tears due to how touching and tragically beautiful the scene was. Rue was a young tribute that Katniss had only just met. In this book, Finnick and Primrose both meet their end, and neither receives the care nor triggers the emotion that was present in Rue's death. Finnick dies off screen during the raid on the Capital at the hands of Capital-engineered mutts, and is hardly thought of afterwards. Primrose also dies in Panem when a bomb is dropped on the group of children she is trying to save. Finnick was one of the few friends that Katniss had that really seemed to understand what she was going through, and Primrose was the person that Katniss loved above anyone else, the one who she was prepared to sacrifice her life for in the first book. We're told that Katniss is affected by Prim's death, but we never really feel it. It happens too fast to make a lasting impact, and that could have worked had Katniss' emotions been handled well enough to successfully make us feel the raw pain that losing her sister so suddenly would have brought. Rather, the dazed, detached state that Katniss seems to be perpetually in gets in the way, and we simply don't get the same emotional response. The only time I felt even a little sad over Primrose's death was when Katniss grieved with Buttercup. And better yet, Prim's death also encourages Katniss' mother to write her a letter saying that her mother can't bear to be around Katniss anymore because it reminds her too much of Primrose...seems like a convenient way to take mom out of the picture. The loss of life in the first and even the second book was made to feel tragic, but the death of two very important people to Katniss in this book is quickly glossed over with none of the impact that is present in the early books...and it's a damn shame given how emotional they could, and by all rights should have been.
There were a couple of things I liked about "Mockingjay," though they seem very small in the grand scheme of the book. I actually really liked that District 13 isn't what Katniss (and everyone else) hoped it would be. It's different and puts the characters in a new environment that we haven't seen in the first couple of books. Additionally, the way of life in District 13 is incredibly practical and makes sense given their situation. It adds a new element to the book and gives the characters new obstacles to overcome. I even found myself thinking that some of the brutal tactics District 13 used were refreshing because it really makes it seem like there aren't any clear cut "good" or "bad" guys. It's a shame this idea wasn't explored more thoroughly. I also really enjoyed the media aspect of the rebellion. In fact, I've thought the role of the media in all three books was interesting and was pleased to see it carry into this book.
Romance-wise, we finally get a resolution to the love triangle, but like with so many other aspects of the book, it's a disappointing conclusion. I've mentioned in my reviews for the other books that both Peeta and Gale are decent guys with both having their individual attributes and flaws. That kind of falls apart in this novel. Peeta is absent for a lot of the story, and when he returns, he's suffering the effects of torture and is practically insane. He recovers enough to accompany Katniss during the infiltration of Panem, but is never quite as stable as he once was. Gale is given something of an unfortunate makeover by the author and is suddenly bloodthirsty and not understanding of Katniss' plight. Katniss also never has to make a decision. She overhears her two suitors talking while in Panem; one of them comments that she'll pick the one she can't survive without. That should set up a difficult choice for Katniss, but she ends up being given a pass on this when Gale decides that a big job in District 2 is more important than her (and really, who can blame him given how she is by the end of the book) and Peeta ends up settling down with her because, it seems, they're both stuck in District 12. So much for the agonizing indecision that plagued her over which guy to date. A lot of time and pages are spent both in the last book and this one with Katniss thinking about her boyfriend problem, yet we don't get much in the way of a satisfying resolution. Romance isn't my thing and, honestly, I was rooting for Gale until the end of this book, but even I felt a little gypped by the outcome.
Katniss, oh, Katniss...what happened to you? She started off as a strong heroine in "The Hunger Games." Practical, skilled, decisive, and confident, she was the type of protagonist that so many YA books are missing, the type of protagonist you want to succeed because they're so likable. In the second book, the character took a turn for the worse and became selfish, whiny, and passive. Sadly, that trend continued in "Mockingjay," and Katniss somehow became even more indecisive, selfish, and whiny than she was in the second book. Perhaps worse, she became spineless. I think everyone wanted to see her break away from her role as a pawn, first of the Capital and then of District 13, and become the symbol she wanted to be. I hoped she would be decisive in this book by standing up for what she wanted and taking an active role in the rebellion's decisions and events. But she doesn't do any of this and instead spends most of her time, as I said before, in the hospital on drugs or moping around District 13. I could have forgiven her being like this in the beginning of the book since it would have been understandable in her position and would have provided the opportunity for her to take what she's been through and grow into a strong heroine. She remains static, never getting better and instead getting worse throughout the book. I found myself hating her for how selfish and passive she was and wondering where the Hell the Katniss from the first book went. It's as if the character development went backwards through the series: this should have possibly been where she began and the Katniss from "The Hunger Games" should have been what she grew to become. She's also so detached and dazed in this book that it's difficult to relate to her at all. It's hard to enjoy a book when the main character is so unlikable, and harder still when the protagonist used to be such a strong heroine.
I've mentioned in my reviews for the last two books that Katniss isn't a particularly good narrator, and that remains true for "Mockingjay." Not only does she still not provide a unique point of view, but she also isn't present for a lot of the big events. This book should have been either third person or have switched the point of view to Gale or Plutarch or anyone else who was more involved. To reiterate, it feels like nothing happens because Katniss is present for so little. There's also a problem with the utilization of the point of view. The purpose of telling a story through the eyes of one character using first person is to let the reader get inside the character's head and see what makes them tick, what motivates them, and what leads them to make the decisions they make. The choices that Katniss does manage to make are incredibly nonsensical. When asked if there should be one final Hunger Games to punish the Capital, Katniss contemplates if this is how the Hunger Games were initially started and then ultimately votes for it. Really? She's fought so hard to end the Hunger Games and she wants to have one more. Her justification is that it's for Prim, but that's just what she says. We don't get any insight to this choice; she doesn't really think about it or weigh out the different sides. For something that's so incredibly inconsistent with her character, there needs to be more reason behind it; we need to see what she's thinking. The same is true for her decision to shoot Coin instead of Snow. We get that the discussion she had with Snow is making her think, but the decision seems to be made in a moment of madness. She doesn't even really think about it afterwards, so we never truly understand it. Katniss spends a lot of time being indecisive, and when she does choose to do something, it isn't justified particularly well, which defeats the purpose of using the first person point of view.
Most of the other characters fare equally poorly. Despite his ordeal at the hands of the Capital, Peeta seems to recover pretty well, though he's never quite the same. As I said earlier, Gale becomes suddenly vicious and doesn't care about how many lives are lost to achieve their goal of overthrowing Panem. Although I personally appreciated that Gale actually seemed passionate about what was going on (unlike Katniss), this seemed more like a lazy way for the author to make us dislike him so we wouldn't be so disappointed when Katniss ends up with Peeta. Haymitch isn't seen all that often, though when he is, he's the same cynical grump he was in the first couple books. It's quite disappointing that he returns to seeking comfort in alcohol at the end, as it feels like his character went nowhere. Finnick is probably the only character that seems to grow as we learn more about him, which makes his death all the more frustrating. Most of the characters we meet in District 13 are painted with the same ruthlessly practical brush with Boggs perhaps being the exception. We don't really see enough of anyone else to get a feel for how their characters are growing. Prim seems to be coming into her role as a doctor, but we only see her a couple times in the book, and Katniss' mother is practically absent. There are a lot of players in this story, and most are disappointing in how little they are developed.
On a random note regarding Snow, I was hoping something would be revealed that would make him a little more sympathetic or at least give more insight to the character. I think back to a book I read a couple years ago, "Poison Study," which also featured a harsh ruler. Towards the end of the book, the protagonist learns a big secret about him that makes the reader understand his motivations, even if you don't agree with what he's done. I wanted something similar for Snow and was hoping that Finnick would provide it when he begins to spill the President's secrets. Instead, all we learn is that Snow really is a terrible person that poisoned his enemies in the past and isn't above forcing the Games victors into prostitution. I'm aware that not all villains need to be made more human, but it would have added a unique element to the novel and possibly would have given Katniss more to think about.
I've used the word "disappointed" in various forms quite a bit in this review because that's the best way to describe "Mockingjay" - disappointing. There was a lot riding on this novel, and I suppose it never could have lived up to what people expected (as final books rarely do), but it could have provided a riveting story that ended in a satisfying conclusion. To reiterate what I said at the beginning of the book, "Mockingjay" is a mess...how can the author take elements that were handled so well in the first couple books and mangle them so badly? I give the book two stars, one for the couple things I liked and one for the promise the book held. It could have been amazing.