Reading works in a series frequently causes me endless despair, in the interminable waiting for another sequel to be released kind of way. This is why I typically avoid series if I can, at least until all of the stories are already published. I was fortunate to be a latecomer to the fandom for this series, keeping me free of that particular brand of anguish.
I've often felt that it would be difficult for your average, ordinary mortal to follow up such a genius work as The Hunger Games with any degree of success. Lucky for us, Ms. Collins appears to be on a higher plane of mortality!
Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, with Katniss and Peeta back home in District 12 picking up the pieces of the friendship that was shattered by Katniss' post-Games revelations. Due to the nature of the requirements placed on the shoulders of any Victors, the pair is preparing to be thrust back into the spotlight once again for the sake of maintaining the image that helped them become Games favorites in the first place. They are reunited with stylists and prep teams, coming to know them even better than before. This all leads up to the Victory Tour, placed midway through the year between the Games, for the Districts to celebrate the individual Victors in person. New threats cause new rifts in relationships both old and new, and loyalties become divided in ways nobody could foresee.
The real trouble begins with two things: The arrival of a new and excessively militant Head Peacekeeper, and the announcement of the third Quarter Quell, which occurs every 25 years. These Games always come with especially cruel mandates. (In the second Quarter Quell, the Reaping called for twice the usual number of Tributes, one of whom was Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss' and Peeta's mentor.) The emergence of a pair of Victors of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games elevated District 12's number of living Victors from one to three. When the announcement called for the Quarter Quell Tributes to be reaped from the pool of existing Victors, it meant only one thing -- Katniss was headed back into the arena.
Preparing for their newly-decided fate meant a variety of changes for the pair and their mentor. Constant athletic training for the Tributes, sobriety for the mentor, and changes to friendships and familial relationships alike were the new order. Even the Capitol's preparation period prior to the Games was wildly different, with alliances being formed and reformed both in secret and out. The culmination of their preparations was still no match for the arena that was chosen. It was a challenge for all manner of skill sets right from the start, save a select few from District 4. Overcoming stereotypes was a challenge for nearly every Tribute in the Games.
As the plot thickened, it was easy to see the change coming over Katniss where Peeta was concerned. But the mystery of other Tributes seeming to put his survival ahead of their own was both a source of consternation for Katniss and the reader, and a bit of clever foreshadowing. By the time the climax of the story arrives, the suspense is palpable. The events that bring the Quarter Quell to its end are as disastrous as they are disturbing, and the aftermath of those actions and reactions will leave you shaken to your core. I know they did mine!
All told, I positively flew through this story! It was impossible to put it down, and left me desperate to get to the finale that was waiting in the third installment. I would venture to say that it was my favorite of the three. Dazzling mental imagery interspersed with suspense and danger and a heartwarming approach to young love all combine to create a story that I found captivating. I could honestly have done without the whole "two's a couple, three's a crowd" angle, which is seriously DONE. TO. DEATH. in all manner of fiction these days. But beyond that, it was a positively thrilling read.