First: this trilogy was pretty much the Perfect Gift for me, by which I mean:
- It was a series that I'd heard good things about.
- But I had already decided that I wouldn't like the subject matter and therefore wasn't going to read it on my own.
- However, once I got it as a gift I figured I should try it.
- I found the first book okay but would not have read the sequels if I didn't have them on hand.
- I really enjoyed the second and third books, and found them very well done.
They're well-written, engaging books: I got them for Christmas and finished all three by December 28th, which should say something. :)
With the movie out, I think most people who hadn't heard about the beforehand know the basic premise, but here it is for those who don't: the first novel is about a girl in a post-apocalyptic America, where the human population appears to be confined to thirteen smallish cities / centers of population, which are widely separated by distance. 74 years ago, the then-thirteen outer Districts rebelled against the Capitol. The rebellion was quashed, and as penance the Capitol instigated the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are an annual event where twelve boys and twelve girls are selected semi-randomly, two from each of the former rebel Districts, to engage in Teen Survivor Deathmatch.
"Teen Survivor Deathmatch" is what I knew when I decided not to read the books prior to receiving them as a gift. I am not a fan of reality TV, or of depressing books, or of the kind of silly, contrived situations that result in and from coercing a bunch of random unrelated characters into trying to kill each other for the entertainment of a third party. So despite having heard that these were good books, I didn't think I'd like them.
My assessment was somewhat correct regarding the first book, which is pretty much all Teen Survivor Deathmatch. However, there were various interesting hints, not really explored but just laid out there, that there was more to the story than kids killing kids for entertainment. You get hints about the politics of the setting. There's crushing poverty and widespread starvation in District 12, the protagonist's home district. Some of the other districts are favored by the Capitol and in considerably better shape, but none of them are like the Capitol, which is a bastion of high-tech abundance and luxury. There is a sense of hopelessness in the people from the districts, especially District 12: they hate their situation and they hate the Capitol and what it's done and is doing to them, but they don't see any way out, any hope for rebellion. Despite that hopelessness, there are little hints of people -- both from the Districts and the Capitol -- who recognize that not only are the Hunger Games themselves a hideous travesty, but the entire oppressive treatment of the Districts is as well.
But this is only a hint in the first book; you don't get any resolution on it, and you don't even get any obvious progress towards redress. Which is why I didn't care for it that much.
The second and third books, however, delve heavily into that theme of oppression and rebellion, and it does so with surprising sophistication. Instead of postulating the standard Evil Empire fighting against the Good Rebels, the results are far more mixed. People from the Capitol are key figures in both starting and supporting the rebellion. People from the Districts support the existing regime, sometimes out of fear and sometimes even out of faith in what they cannot see as a badly broken system. The rebellion itself has its own ways in which it oppresses the people within it. The overall tone is bleak, which I generally don't like, but I really appreciated the emphasis on the point that democracy and goodness do not spring up naturally among people who have known nothing but cruelty and oppression. It's not a matter of "kill the one guy in charge and everything will become perfect afterwards".
It's still a little too much "evil people are evil and need to be killed", but there was quite a lot of recognition of why people in untenable situations still won't rebel, and why people who seem to benefit from the enslavement of others may not be evil.
Another thing that I thought was bleak-but-well-done: the survivors of the Hunger Games (bear in mind that there've been 73 games at the start of the book, so there are 60 or 70 survivors around) are mostly badly traumatized individuals. These are all people who went through absolutely horrible situations, and it shows. They didn't just go home with their prizes and live happily ever after. They also all react in different ways: trauma is not one-size-fits-all. There were consequences to what they'd undergone, and the author does not flinch from portraying it, which I thought was an important thing to show.
On a non-political level, the protagonist gets enmeshed in a love triangle, which is one of my least favorite plot devices. In this case, though, the protagonist amused me by her relative indifference to the whole issue. Yes, she obviously has both guys in the camp of 'people I care about'. But her big preoccupation is "how can I keep myself, my family, and everyone else I care about from getting killed or harmed?" The whole "who do I want to marry?" question comes from an alien universe to her. "Marry? I am going to live long enough for this to matter? What makes you think that?" Actions that for another character might be taken out of love are, for her, taken out of calculation: "what keeps us alive?" so far outshadows "what do I really want?" that she doesn't even really try to tell what she really wants. Because what difference would it make? And I found that emphasis refreshing as well.
The books are not without flaws and oddities that require suspension of disbelief. I liked some things about the ending of the last one, but also found it contrived in many ways. As one might expect from a series centered around Teen Survivor Deathmatch, contrivances abound. Still, I'd recommend the series as a whole, as interesting and largely pretty well-executed.