Bored and ostracized, Luke gazed out his bedroom window at the fast-approaching darkness. He didn't like being alone in his bedroom (not since the banging that had ruined his life), but at the moment, there was nowhere else for him to go.
He despised his life. Nothing was the way it should be: his father was dead, his mother blamed him, his only friend in LeVir Lake hated him, his friends in Salem had probably forgotten him, and he was coming down with a serious case of cabin fever. On
top of that, he felt gypped that he couldn't see the landscape behind the wall. All he could see were the very tops of the trees poking up like arrowheads. What was the point of living in an oasis if he couldn't receive visual pleasure from the contrast of the desert and the town?
A jogger trotted along Prudence Boulevard.
Luke performed a double take. There was a jogger. Trotting along Prudence Boulevard. After sundown. He quickly opened his window for a better look at this strange phenomenon.
It was a girl who looked just about Luke's age, though from the distance he was at he couldn't be certain. She didn't look like a Padres. Her jet-black hair tied into a ponytail swept across her back as she moved, counterbalancing skin so pale it almost glowed in the impending darkness. On her petite yet shapely physique, she wore tiny black shorts with a tight white tank top, under which her black sports bra was evident. Her squeaky clean white running shoes nearly covered her white ankle socks. Luke loved ankle socks on women. The less sock, the more leg! And unlike Marlene's varicose appendages, the girl's lean legs were the kind at which Luke liked looking.
Despite the sun being set, the beautiful jogger wore sunglasses. As she passed Luke's house, he leaned out the window to keep her in view and she detected him ogling her. When she glanced at his house, his brain told him to hide, but something else kept him in place and he continued staring. The jogger didn't seem to mind having an observer. She smirked at him before refocusing on her path.
It was the centerfold girl! The jogger was the girl Luke had seen in his magazine that he couldn't find again. Luke felt temporarily paralyzed, the same way a small child feels after hearing a particularly deafening thunder strike.
Something fell from the girl's body. Her sunglasses lay stranded in the middle of Prudence Boulevard, and she was jogging away without them. Luke's need to return them to her inflated in his chest and filled his veins.
Luke raced out of his house and snatched the sunglasses. He looked for the girl, but she had disappeared. "Not again," Luke moaned. He ran in the direction she had gone until he reached the town gate. The exertion took his breath away and he paused to retrieve it while he looked to see where the girl had gone, but he didn't see her anywhere. What he did see was that the gate was open. He strayed outside it, his old sneakers crunching over the gravel drive that led to the dark desert. The skyscraping trees seemed to bow toward him in the last remaining traces of dusk.
Luke caught a glimpse of someone flitting into the trees a few yards ahead. The centerfold girl. Luke, determined to return her sunglasses to her, dashed into the woods, thinking of nothing except meeting this mysterious, beautiful stranger.
Inside the trees, darkness blinded him. The thick branches blocked the residual twilight from reaching him. He strained to see as he hiked forward.
Luke halted as his rationality suddenly returned. Why was he venturing into the black forest? The girl probably lived in LeVir Lake. Someone with such clean shoes couldn't possibly reside in the woods. There was no reason he couldn't return the sunglasses to her another day. He'd knock on every door in town until he found her.
Luke turned to go home, a little embarrassed at his impulsive action, and hoping Lisa didn't know he'd left.
A disembodied cough canceled his retreat. Luke spun around, his singular purpose snapped back into place, searching for the cough's maker. He spotted a tiny light. It hung around the girl's neck, bouncing as she jogged in place, checking her pulse between two trees.
"Hey!" Luke called.
The girl ran off without seeing him.
"Wait!" Luke yelled. "You dropped these!" He waved her sunglasses in the air. They slipped from his grasp and plummeted to the black ground.
The girl looked back at Luke and laughed, but she didn't stop jogging. Luke felt an even stronger urge to follow her. Her pace quickened. Luke raked the ground for the sunglasses, found them, and hurried after the girl.
He slammed into a thick tree in his path. He swayed back, dazed for a moment, but he shook off the shock. He didn't remember a giant tree standing between him and where the centerfold girl had been. He must have turned when he picked up the sunglasses. He looked around for the two trees he had faced before, but without the girl's light, it was too dark to see anything.
A screech echoed above him. Luke gulped. "Please don't be a bat." Luke wished he had kept the promise he’d made to Jan to stay out of the woods as another screech resonated through the trees. "I don't like bats," Luke told himself as he felt his way around trees. He had never actually been near any kind of bat, but that didn't matter.
Luke's shins collided with some shrubs. He tried stepping over the plants, but he misjudged their height and tripped. He fell flat on his face, and the sunglasses once again flew from his hand.
He crawled over the ground, searching, pawing, begging his eyes to adjust to the blinding dark. He came across something smooth and rigid--the sunglasses frames. Luke picked them up. Triumphant, he regained his stance.
The sunglasses tickled his palm. That wasn't good. Luke brought his hand to his face, squinting as hard as he could to identify what he held.
A scorpion! Luke flung it away. He ran. Without knowing where he was going or what was in his way, he ran. He slammed into trees, but they failed to slow him. More screeching echoed above him, sounding like unnatural laughter roaring from all sides.
The ground opened under Luke's feet. His body plummeted, his heart jumping into his throat. His arms reached for something to stop his descent, but there was nothing around him. He was falling into a pit, and he didn't know how deep it was.
His throat closed as his shirt collar tightened. His body jolted up as something yanked him back. He flew through the air and landed on his back on solid ground. The adrenaline pumping through his body kept his breath in his lungs, and the hard landing didn't even faze him. Luke's fingers dug into the root-infested soil, making sure it was real.
"What are you doing out here?" Jan's voice whispered coarsely.
Luke flinched, all thoughts of finding the centerfold girl startled away. Jan was the last person he expected to encounter in the woods. He felt even more in trouble than he would have if his mom had caught him out of the house. "Where did you come from?" he exclaimed, looking in the direction from which her voice had come but seeing nothing but black air.
Jan shushed him. She was near enough that he felt her breath rush over the top of his head. She was standing over him. "You have to be quiet. What are you doing in the woods?"
Luke grunted as he stood, hoping he was facing her. "I followed this girl. She dropped her sunglasses."
"Do you still have them?"
"I lost them."
"Good. We have to get out of here." She grabbed Luke's wrist and started walking.
"Jan," Luke demanded, resisting her pull, "what's going on?"
She stopped. By the way her hand twisted his wrist, he knew she was staring straight at him. "Now you want to listen? We're standing in the darkest, most dangerous place in the world and you want me to explain everything now?"
"Are we really in danger?" Now that Jan was with him, Luke felt like nothing could hurt him. Not even a bat.
Jan tensed, squeezing Luke's wrist. He felt a breeze as she crossed herself, and his strange sense of calm was replaced by the familiar panic.
As if someone had fired a silent start gun, Jan took off, rocketing through the woods, hauling Luke behind her. His feet struggled to find solid footings and he could barely keep up. Jan's speed astounded Luke. His old football coach would have loved her. She moved as if nothing was in her way, but the branches she effortlessly pushed aside slapped Luke's face. Some had thorns.
Suddenly, they were free of the woods. Aided by the twinkling sheet of stars above him, Luke could see again. They came out of the woods much farther down the gravel drive than Luke had entered. Jan pulled him away from the desert, down the very middle of the drive, not slowing until they reached the town gate. Once there, she finally stopped and released Luke's wrist while she peered into town.
"Can we talk now?" Luke wheezed, doubling over, trying to catch his breath. Even at the top of his athletic prowess, he had never run so far so fast. As he sucked in fresh air, he noticed the gate had gone from wide open to almost closed during the time he was in the woods.
"We're lucky we made it out of there alive," Jan whispered. "Now we're going to have to be especially quiet. Pad your footsteps when we enter town."
Jan's hand skimmed Luke's palm as she reclaimed his wrist to usher him through the town gate. The flesh of his hand tingled, sending a tiny, pleasurable shock into his chest.
An obstacle immediately faced them: two men strolled along LeVir Lake Avenue. Luke wondered if all of the residents of LeVir Lake had had a meeting and decided that was the perfect night to start going out after dark. Jan wrenched Luke into a backyard and pressed herself against the house, shimmying across the back wall. Signaling Luke to be silent, Jan checked around the corner. Shivers visibly raced through her body. She shot a glare at Luke, her circular eyes filled with both agitation and desperation. Luke had no idea what to do. He didn't even know from what they were hiding.
He spied movement by the town wall. Luke squinted, distinguishing a pale face wearing sunglasses. The centerfold girl. She was leaning against the town wall, grinning at him, almost laughing.
Luke nudged Jan. She took a break from scanning the street to see what he wanted. Luke nodded toward the centerfold girl. Jan looked.
Jan didn't warn Luke as she took off from behind the house, nearly tearing his arm off in the process. She towed Luke across Prudence Boulevard.
Luke glanced back at the centerfold girl. She watched them from her spot on the wall, not following, wearing a satisfied smirk.
Jan pulled Luke past his house to hers. Karol opened the front door for them, being careful to stay inside the house. She slammed it shut the instant they cleared the doorframe.
Luke fell to the floor and panted. Karol held Jan, who was on her knees, rocking back and forth and rambling about "her." Luke assumed she meant the centerfold girl. He rolled onto his back, inhaling long, measured breaths, trying to relax his wound-up muscles. They'd sprung to life after a year of depressed sluggishness, but the second he hit the floor, they'd turned to rocks.
Jan stopped talking. Luke looked to see what was up. She had released herself from her mother, stood up, and was staring down at him. The emotions in her face were so intense, Luke couldn't figure out whether they were loving or spiteful. He could feel her silently ordering him to get up and face her. He ordered his muscles to move. They reluctantly complied. He stood, looking directly into Jan's passionate eyes.
"Jan," he started, "why--?"
Jan slugged him across the jaw. Luke stumbled back against the front door.
"What were you thinking?!" she screamed. "I warned you! I made it blatantly clear that it was dangerous to leave your house after sunset. And I told you, I told you very clearly that the woods are off limits. Do you have any idea how lucky you are that I got to you first? I did not have to go after you. I warned you. Why didn't you listen?"
Jan dropped back to her knees, sobbing into her hands. The way her body bent made her look like a quavering Z. Neither Karol nor Luke comforted her that time. They were both afraid of what she might do to anyone who touched her.
The phone rang in the other room. Karol left to answer it. Luke stepped toward Jan, but she held her hand out, warning him not to come near, pushing his friendship away.
Luke felt a hand on his upper back. It belonged to the old man who lived with Jan. The man motioned for Luke to follow him and left the opposite way Karol hard. Luke glanced at Jan's doleful form once more before going to the other room.
*Beware. Here there be spoilers.*
I was never interested in The Hunger Game series until the movie came out. Truthfully, I still wasn't interested. I assumed The Hunger Games was a tween phenom successor to Twilight, a series (both book and film) that I never believed deserved the hype it received and to this day I haven't been able to fully regain my respect for humanity for letting that happen. I just wanted to hang out with my friends, but they all wanted to go see the movie so I ended up tagging along. Not knowing much about the series going in, I was pleased by the interesting storyline, the high-stakes conflicts, the well-developed characters, and their relationships. I realized that maybe this pop culture trend was a bandwagon worthy of jumping on. I talked to my friends who had read the entire series, and they all highly recommended I read it. They offered their opinions on characters from the series, mentioned parts of the story they were dying to discuss but wouldn't so as not to spoil the books for me, and gave wildly enthusiastic thumbs up to the film adaptation. However, every single person I talked to about the series warned me that the third book in the series, Mockingjay, sucks.
No one could tell me exactly why. This was partly because they didn't want to spoil anything, but mainly they just furrowed their brows at each other while thinking of ways to describe why I'd probably be disappointed with Mockingjay, but not coming up with much. One friend simply called it "for shit," a phrase I'm not sure means anything specific, but which definitely comes across as an insult. But I've always been the kind of person who prefers to form her own opinion, so I read the series as soon as I could, and as fast as I could. This wasn't difficult. Suzanne Collins knows how to keep a reader hooked, and I couldn't put the first two books down, reading them back to back, barely stopping to eat or sleep. I was happy to find that the characters I'd become invested in while watching the film--namely Katniss, Peeta, Rue, and Prim--had been brought to the screen with few changes in characterization, and once I finished Catching Fire, I was intrigued with the paths the characters had taken and immediately picked up Mockingjay.
Now that I've finished the series and can look back on the three books as a whole adventure, I now know that everyone was right. Mockingjay sucks. Well, that's not fair. Just like the first two books, it was well-written in a way that keeps the reader eagerly turning pages to find out what happens next, introduces both endearing and abhorrent new characters that add to the dynamic of the tale and help define relationships between the characters we've gotten to know already, and pushes the tale beyond what we expect it to be. Yet, that latter attribute is where Mockingjay falls apart for many readers. Collins takes risks, which I always appreciate, and is not afraid to push the boundaries that she herself set up with The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. The problem is that she pushes Mockingjay too far, reaching a point to which we readers never signed up to venture. Each sequel in an adventure series is obligated to give us something new and exciting that tops whatever we experienced in the previous books while still retaining the personality of the series. Catching Fire does this admirably by (*SPOILER ALERT*) forcing victors back into the arena for the Quarter Quell edition of everyone's favorite reality competition show--a moment that shocked me so much that I woke up my sister because I gasped so loud--and elevating President Snow from nasty politician to a real antagonist and threat to Katniss and everyone she loves and cares about. We're introduced to the turmoil in the districts just itching for a catalyst for rebellion. We even got to enjoy the growing development of the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. The beauty of Catching Fire is that it kept throwing the reader curveballs while staying true to the innocent maturity Katniss's narration gives it. And then comes Mockingjay, a war story, where everything the first two books so carefully built comes crashing down.
First of all, District 12 has been destroyed. District 12 is home base, the place where Katniss can orient herself. Now she must live in the enigmatic District 13, which turns out to be a vast underground military compound. And there go all the quaint and homey comforts that Katniss has always known. There goes home base. The predicament is reminiscent of the final Harry Potter book, the only book in the series that doesn't chiefly take place at Hogwarts, and the characters must wander from place to place to complete their mission. The difference here is that Hogwarts continues to exist even after the story ends. It's always there in case Harry needs it. District 12, its buildings, its industry, most of its people. They're all gone. No amount of rebuilding can replace them. By destroying Katniss's domicile, the foundation of the series disappears, leaving us floating homeless and confused as to where we will wind up.
Speaking of bedrocks, the main factor that personally kept me reading was to find out what happens to Peeta. I like him for all the reasons Katniss and Haymitch want to keep him alive: he knows who he is and what he stands for, he's open and honest with everyone, and he is one of the few characters who retains his virtue even after everything he went through in the first two books. He's just a good person who deserves good things, but Mockingjay is hell-bent on keeping good things from him. We spend the first half of the book nearly Peeta-less, but this is necessary for tension and other characters we've been overlooking (Gale) to develop and whatnot. However, when the rebels rescue him from the Capitol, he's no longer the Peeta we know. The boy with bread who never had to (or wanted to) kill anyone is now a killer. He wants Katniss dead by his hands. This is a result from the torture he endures in the Capitol, but it broke my heart. Literally, once he returns, every time Katniss can't find the love and admiration for her that shapes his character in his eyes, instead finding only unadulterated hatred, I experienced pangs in my chest. The one character we are certain could never be a bad guy becomes exactly that. This is a betrayal. Admittedly it's an interesting plot twist, but it's also an unforgivable one. It's like someone turning Jesus into a hitman for the mob. The doctors figure out a way to recondition him, but he's never the same again. And don't you dare go telling me "That's life." This is not life. This is fiction, where people are actually rewarded for being good and don't get turned into evil Muttations. Seriously, the pangs are present right now.
Let's move on to the other character that changed too much: Katniss. She begins the series as a girl who's had to grow up before her time, who takes care of others. In Catching Fire, she begins to lean on Peeta and, to a lesser extent, Haymitch to help her out and do the things she doesn't want to, like speak to the public, but she's still somewhat mature. She's always been a flawed hero, but in Mockingjay, she loses most of her redeeming qualities and never regains them. She's regressed to someone who's constantly running off to hide from her problems in some abandoned closet, she puts other people in danger through her impulsive actions, and she won't listen to anyone or do things for others unless it's to manipulate them into doing something for her. She's become a freaking teenager. If I wanted to be annoyed by teenagers, I'd go to the mall on a Saturday. This is where the whole self-righteous argument against people who declare they're on Team Peeta or Team Gale becomes irritating, because for most of the third book, choosing which guy she'll end up with is all Katniss thinks about. Occasionally, she takes a break to dwell on killing President Snow or to glare at President Coin, but Mockingjay is all about the love triangle. Peeta being stuck in the Capitol is all about Katniss (and the reader) getting to know Gale in a romantic way so that he becomes an actual threat to Peeta's happiness. Katniss goes from a girl who's never considered settling down and getting married to a girl that dwells constantly on the two boys who love her while she's supposed to be fighting a revolution.
Speaking of the revolution, we all knew that's what Mockingjay was gonna be about. Frankly, we'd dislike the book even more if there wasn't a revolution. Even people who have only seen the movie know there's gonna be a throwdown between the Capitol and the districts. And it's handled fine. Until we get into the Capitol. Until the Capitol becomes the newest arena. I was actually kind of excited about this development. Before this, I was already feeling that Mockingjay had wandered too far from the first two books in terms of content and tone, and I was glad to have this link to the previous books. But then we get to the Capitol arena, and I can't help but think the term "jump the shark." There are nets made of barbed wire that tear through people. There are beams of light that melt flesh off the bones. There is a giant tidal wave of black ooze for some reason. I realized things had gone too far once the lizard people showed up. Yes, the lizard people. We'd come to expect Muttations in the series, but COME ON! That is when Mockingjay became irretrievable. That is when it went too far to defend. That is when it became so many people's least favorite book in the series. But there is one more issue to address.
Most of the problems I've addressed have resulted in a sense of betrayal from the reader (i.e., me), but this final issue is the one I personally cannot forgive. Seriously though, spoilers are ahead. Don't keep reading if you haven't read the books unless you want a reason not to give the series a chance. Here it is. Don't say I didn't warn you. Prim dies. What the hell, right? The whole point of the series is that Katniss is protecting Prim. She takes Prim's place as tribute in the Hunger Games, she allies with Rue because the little girl reminds her of Prim, she pretends to be in love with Peeta to appease President Snow after he threatens Prim, she's constantly preoccupied with making sure Prim is protected and safe once the revolution starts. It's all about Prim. And then Prim dies because she's sent to the front lines of the battle in the Capitol arena as a medic. She's thirteen freaking years old! Katniss realizes why this happens and gets vengeance for it, but once Prim dies, it doesn't matter anymore. Everything that has happened in the series feels pointless. All those deaths. All those horrors. Katniss goes through it all for no reason. One could say the reason was so she and Peeta would find each other and live happily ever after, but there is no happily ever after for Katniss without Prim. Yes, if Katniss had not volunteered for her sister, she would not have set events in motion that would lead to the downfall of the oppressive Capitol regime, and both Prim and Peeta would have died in the Hunger Games, leaving Katniss with no one to love her (except Gale, of course) and stuck in a country ruled by President Snow. Prim would have surely died in that scenario. BUT, as the series plays out, Prim does not have to die. Both Boggs and Snow would have hinted to Katniss that Coin was not to be trusted, and the mass murder of the Capitol children and mention of restarting the Hunger Games should have been enough for Katniss to make sure another heartless regime didn't take power. Prim. Did not. Have. To die. I'm not going to say all of the other betrayals would be forgivable without making the entire series moot by killing Prim, but this is the final straw.
So after all that, my friends were pretty much right. I would not go so far as to say Mockingjay sucks, or that Mockingjay is "for shit," but Mockingjay is a disappointing, ill-fitting finale to a remarkable series that otherwise deserves the hype it's received. Of course, I acknowledge that mine isn't the be-all/end-all opinion on The Hunger Games. Some readers may love how different Peeta is after returning from the Capitol. Some may have been waiting for such over-the-top traps in the arenas. Some readers may have problems with Mockingjay that I didn't even touch on. I discussed my issues with my sister, and she had completely forgotten that Prim dies, so obviously some readers don't have as big of an issue with that as I do. But the fact of the matter remains that most people who have read all three books in The Hunger Games series do not like Mockingjay, and I have simply tried to expound reasons as to why. If nothing else, after all this venting, at least I feel a little better.