Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wonderful Escape

Now that I'm up, it's time to add my two cents to all the other wonderful reviews and agreement about the two best teen novels of the year, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Graceling by Kristin Cashore. It's unusual, but not unheard of, for the most highly acclaimed titles of the year to both be fantasy. So pick them up and lose yourself in an alternate world.

I read the ARC for Hunger Games this summer and was instantly sucked in to this bleak vision of a North American future where the population is divided into camps that are forced send their youth to an annual battle to the death. The Hunger Games are an annual televised "reality show" to the extreme in which a boy and girl from each of the 12 Districts must fight and kill each other until only one is left to reap rewards and the accolades of the the rest of the population.

Catniss, the fatherless and rebellious heroine, is so plucky, and hides her tenderness so well, you can't help but root for her in the brutal game of survival. She seems made to play the game. She knows how to hunt, how to create camouflage; she's lean and athletic and fierce and has few loyalties, even back home. Her balance in the game is the unexpectedly competetive Peeta, the baker's son from her own district. Peeta has always wanted to be friends with Katniss and she has always seen him as someone who pities her and she can't unbend. The two must balance their uneasy relationship with survival - and ultimately one of them must go.

What makes this negative Utopia more compelling than similar stories that have been told in the past is the depth of characterization. Even minor characters live and breathe and you have to root for them while knowing that their doom is imminent. There is a political element that is fascinating too - the players all have stylists and managers to help them appear more likable to the TV audience, even in this brutal battle. It's an interesting twist. The politics will probably be the focus of the projected sequel - one can only hope the sequel is as wonderful as this volume.

Collins was inspired by the myth of Theseus, which opens with the youth of Athens being sent to Crete to battle the Minotaur. If her name sounds familiar, she is the author of the wonderful Gregor the Overlander series for younger kids.

And now to Graceling...which I read earlier this fall. The story is set in a land with seven kingdoms, ruled by seven kings. Some of them are bad, some are good, some united, some isolated, but in all the seven kingdoms there are people with Graces. Those who are Graced are extremely skilled in one area, be it baking, swimming, climbing, or fighting, all of which manifest themselves when children are about ten years old. In most of the kingdoms, those with a Grace are feared, and they can be picked out because their eyes are two different colors.

Katsa (similar name, I know) is Graced with killing - she's King Randa's niece and he is a brutal leader, so he uses her as his strong-arm and assassin. As she grows older, Katsa becomes more and more reluctant both to kill and to be forced to do the king's bidding against her will. As the novel opens, we learn that Katsa is also part of an underground organization that works for the greater good and cooperation throughout the seven kingdoms.

And honestly, I can't go a lot further without giving away all the wonderful plot twists and turns. Seriously! There's a fascinating plot, vivid characters, action, fast-paced fight scenes, and a bit of romance. I thought The Hunger Games was going to be my favorite book of the year until I read Graceling. It is honestly one of the most fantastic novels I have read in years. It completely sucked me in and I could not read again for a while until I could disengage myself from the vivid world Cashore has created.

Kristin Cashore is a first-time author who plans to write a prequel and sequel to Graceling and one can only hope that she handles the new volumes with the finesse and skill she exhibited in Graceling.

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