Catching Fire - Suzanne  Collins Wow. For the most part, none of the sophomore lag that is expected of the middle book in a trilogy, but rather an elegant expansion of the world of the Hunger Games. Reading this book reminded me of a dark flower blossoming in the middle of a wasteland. There were slow periods in the book, especially the first half when Suzanne Collins is "setting up the stage" by introducing more characters and revealing more of not only District 12 but also the other districts. She beautifully establishes the emotional foundation of the novel by introducing Katniss's family, and employing that as one of the greatest motivations for Katniss to not rebel. (We may see her as cowardly, but hey, I think most of us would be when faced with such overwhelming odds.) The first half of the book contained the "world building" component—when the flower turns to the sun and the petals begin to unfurl. Seeing and feeling the world of the novel is one of my favorite things about fantasy/sci-fi, and the world building here is something I normally would have enjoyed and appreciated more than constant action.

But this is the Hunger Games, and from book one, the Hunger Games has been my world. Bringing us back into the Games was a stroke of genius, and made the book complete. The action, the suspense, the intrigue—all components that make up the delicious and deadly Games. The Games didn't occur until the second half of the book, and maybe Collins was delaying for dramatic effect. It worked. By the time Katniss entered the Games, heaven help you if you tried to attract the smallest fraction of my attention. The Games were as brutal as ever, and the deaths of some characters that I knew for maybe 20 pages wrenched my gut.

Yes, Suzanne Collins is (still) that good.

I won't go on about the mindgasm that was the Hunger Games (even though I really, really could), but I will say that it was the best part of the book.

But the reason that I gave this 4 stars instead of 5 is important: the lag. I know I said at the beginning that this book didn’t suffer much sophomore lag, but hence the “for the most part” preface.

For me, the lag didn’t occur broadly in District 12. Don’t get me wrong—the time spent in District 12, while slow, was still enjoyable. The book expanded the scope to all of the other Districts and the Capitol. Unlike some reviewers who found the first half of the book odious, in hindsight, I think it was necessary. It made me care that these people were going to suffer, and it made me question many things. History depicts rebellions, especially successful ones, as glorious or justified or necessary. And while some aspects of that are true, no one ever really talks about the people involved in those rebellions—how little control they have over their own lives and the desperation. The rebels aren’t the victims; it’s the people, who want to go on with their daily lives and survive. But I digress.

The lag was due to the inevitable Love Triangle between Katniss and Peeta/Gale. The added personal drama was unnecessary and sloppily executed. And what isn’t absolutely necessary and well executed causes a lag in a fast-paced story.

The love triangle made my time in District 12 jarring. Usually, I really enjoy love triangles, but only if it’s done correctly with characters with whom I sympathize. Katniss and Peeta claim a special place in my heart, as does Haymitch and even Effie. But the random addition of Gale, of whom we know very little, really irked me. I think his only redeeming quality in the book is that he’s super hot. Fair. But what else? All I’ve seen of him is that he fails to even try to understand Katniss and is jealous of the guy who sacrificed his life for Katniss. At the very least, any decent guy would feel some remorse over breaking up a couple that is supposed to be together to stay alive. He’s a cardboard character, and that his scenes take up valuable space and time from other well-developed characters is a shame. I also found Katniss’s sudden romantic attraction to Gale abrupt as she expressed minimal interest in Gale in the previous novel. Gale could have been a wonderful addition, but he comes up short. Maybe the love triangle wasn’t built up enough. What could have been a spectacular plot device turned in on itself and made Katniss look foolish and hormonal when she has bigger fish to fry.

Hence the four stars.

But, really, you could do much, much worse than picking up this book. I’m glad I waited until the whole trilogy was finished before beginning the Hunger Games. I would have died after that cliffhanger, but thankfully, you and the loved ones in my life are spared a whole lot of my bitching and moaning.

Great book, highly recommended.