The Hunger Games has spread like wildfire since its release in 2008.
And now, having finally read it myself, I can understand why.
First of all, her world-building is top-notch. The post-apocalyptic, dystopian setting she has created is as impressive as it is haunting. There is one major political force in the accessible world (located somewhere in the western U.S.) called the Capitol that rules its twelve satellite-districts with an iron fist, the culminating example of its power being the Hunger Games, a sort of Gladiator-meets-Survivor Man with teenagers held between the twelve districts, supposedly to discourage rebellion. I found Collins's approach to the post-apocalpytic/dystopian world refreshing and innovative, with elements I've rarely seen before (or at the very least, elements presented in ways I've never seen them before).
Her second strength: characterization. The main character, Katniss, is shockingly real and well-rounded. She was very well written, and I felt I came to know her better and better as the book progressed. Katniss had some beatiful conflicts, both internal and external, and the ways she dealt with them were real and believable. Other characters that I thought were particularly well-written were Gale, Rue, and Haymitch--even Peeta, who I think is one of the weaker characters, still has his shining moments.
And then there are the Hunger Games themselves. I have to say, I haven't read a sequence this engrossing since, perhaps, the Army battles in Ender's Game. The way Collins describes the fighting and survival is true edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting action. She also integrates her world-building into the Games seamlessly, revealing interesting facts and histories in the world as she adds conflict and intensity to the Games. And although I found much of the Hunger Games slightly lacking in some descriptions and imagery, the effect nevertheless seemed to contribute to the brutality of it all, the stark reality and immediacy of the Games.
Also contributing to the feeling of immediacy is Collins's use of first-person present tense as the main method of telling the story (from Katniss' point of view, of course). I found it an interesting and, ultimately, a very wise choice for the book.
Another refreshing aspect was the love triangle. Don't let the terminology throw you off, this is no vampire-werewolf-clumsy teenage girl love triangle. It felt much more real, much more believable, and much more in depth than any other attempts at the cliche I've seen lately (I'll name no names). Admittedly, it is a cliche, but Collins handles it responsibly and creatively.
Quite honestly, one of my biggest worries is how the second (Catching Fire) and third (Mockingjay) books in the series will be. Now that the Hunger Games are out of the way, I wonder if Collins will be able to keep me as interested as I was in this first book. She certainly has her work cut out for her, and I'll find out soon--I have the second book on hand and will read it as soon as I finish the YA novel I'm reading right now (Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters). But I must say, as engrossing as Ender's Game was, I've always thought that Speaker for the Dead was a better work in just about every way (except, perhaps, on the excitement level). I'm not sure if Collins has the same miracle inside her or not--The Hunger Games is a phenomenal book on almost every level, with only a few micro-flaws--but it will be interesting to find out. I'll let you know what I conclude.
My rating: ****** (6.5/7 stars)