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I found this book through some best-of lists. People seemed to like it a lot, and the premise sounded interesting.
In a post-apocalyptic future, a country has been divided into thirteen Districts (each focused on a specific industry), and ruled by a government based on the Capitol. When the districts decide to rebel against the tyranny of the Capitol, a bloody war ensues, and, following the defeat of the insurgence (and the destruction of District 13), the government creates the Hunger Games as an annual reminder to the districts of who is truly in charge. In these Games, twelve boys and twelve girls, aged from 12 to 18, are randomly selected from each district, and set loose in an arena to kill each other, while the rest of the country watches. Only one can be the winner.
Katniss, the protagonist, is a sixteen year-old girl from District 12, the poorest of the districts, who has learned from early on the hardships of life, and hunts illegally to keep food on her family's table. When her little sister's name is called out at the selection, she steps forward and volunteers to take her place, knowing that by doing so she is signing her own death sentence.
This was an incredible book. For once my expectations were met, and exceeded. This is young adult in tone, but asks for more maturity than most YA books out there, since this is a very cruel, realistic world. The Games are of such a macabre nature that is hard to explain, but in the context of the world makes complete sense. The betting of rich people on each contestant, the way everyone tries to manipulate sympathies, the devices the gamemakers use to force contestants to go where they want and confront one another... It's a very sick game, but one that is easily imaginable, considering all the horrible reality shows that already exist out there. I'm pretty sure something like this would exist if it wasn't illegal.
The plot is good, though not entirely unpredictable, but the characters are excellent. Katniss is believable as someone who knows what she must do to survive, someone who understands the rules of the game, but is still not cynical enough to be immune to the perversity that permeates everything. The author does a very good job of presenting the world through her eyes, fleshing out the other characters while still being able to leave the question of whether they are a friend or a foe in the air.
The premise may not be the most original (I've heard it was based on Battle Royale), but it's such a well-written book that it doesn't matter. It's sure to keep you glued to the pages, suffering for the characters, until the very end. Highly recommended.