I used to tell my daughter stories about a family of mer-cats--kitties with fish tails--who lived in the East River and how they were persecuted by a mean purple octopus. I spent considerable time and effort coming up with nonviolent ways for the mer-cats to defeat the octopus at the end of each story. Finally one night I asked my daughter Lily, who was 4 at the time, how she thought the mer-cats should handle the problem. She chirpily replied that the mer-cats should find a sharp rock and then stab the octopus till it died. Ha, ha, ha! Kids.
If the time ever comes, Lily might do pretty well in the Hunger Games. As described by Suzanne Collins in her young-adult novel of the same name, the Hunger Games are an annual spectacle in which a group of children are forced by the government to fight one another to the death on TV. A sequel, Catching Fire (Scholastic; 400 pages), will be out on Sept. 1. The Hunger Games is a chilling, bloody and thoroughly horrifying book, a killer cocktail of Logan's Run, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, reality TV and the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. But it inspires in readers a kind of zeal I haven't seen since the early days of Twilight. Stephen King is a major fan. So is Stephenie Meyer.
The Hunger Games is set in an unspecified future time when things have gone pretty spectacularly badly for humanity. The world, or the bit of it we can see, is dominated by a ruling caste who live in luxury in a city called the Capitol. The rest of us live like peasants in 12 districts that are strictly cordoned off from the Capitol and one another. Life in the districts sucks: it's mostly hard labor--mining coal and farming and working in factories--in dismal conditions.
To make things even dismaler, once a year each district is required to give up two of its children, chosen by lottery, and enter them in the Hunger Games. The kids are dropped into an enormous arena strewn with traps and hazards, with a heap of weapons and supplies in the middle. The last child alive wins a lifetime of luxury and celebrity. The action is filmed and broadcast to the entire world.
We experience this ordeal through the eyes of Katniss, a resident of District 12, a harsh, cold region mostly given over to coal-mining. She is a passionate 16-year-old who hates the Capitol and is devoted to her family; she volunteers for the Games to take the place of her sister, whose name came up in the lottery. Katniss is a skilled hunter and sheer death with a bow and arrow. She doesn't like to kill. But she doesn't want to die either.