The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: Dystopian
The very premise of The Hunger Games - children forced to fight to the death, on live TV - gives away the dystopian bent of this novel, and (aside from seeing what all the hype was about) this is a large part of what attracted me to it. I do like a good dystopia. The government of Panem uses violence and fear to keep the population in check, and The Games are just one very public, very unpleasant, facet of this system. And although it's brutal, the concept isn't terribly far removed from Roman gladiator fights - there's nothing that implausible about death-as-entertainment, unfortunately. I was competely sucked into the world from page one, and didn't want to put the book down.
One boy and one girl from every District must go and fight in the Hunger Games every year, with victory going to the last one standing. Katniss lives in fear that her name will come up, but what actually happens is worse: her younger sister is selected. Without even stopping to think, Katniss invokes a little-used rule to volunteer and take Prim's place as tribute. Along with Peeta, a boy she knows only barely, she's then thrust into a strange world where winning over the TV audience can bring gifts that mean the difference between life and death. This mix of fickle reality show with the harsh environment of the arena makes for a chilling combination. As tributes from poverty-stricken District 12, Katniss and Peeta aren't expected to win the kind of public support that would give them a fighting chance, but if there's one thing life has taught Katniss it's how to survive.
That the story is told exclusively from Katniss's perspective adds an interesting dimension. In the arena, the reader knows no better than she does where danger lurks, or who is close on her heels, or who can truly be trusted. The latter is particularly true of her relationship with Peeta: when he seems to care, we see only one side of the story, and share Katniss's doubts as to his motives. I'm usually quite indifferent to first- versus third-person narrative, but in this case I think that it really works, and these ongoing uncertainties keep up the tension as the story develops.
Another implication of the first-person perspective is that Katniss doesn't know much about life outside her district: the ruling classes keep information rationed as much as they do supplies. So while there are tantalising hints of history and politics, so much of the fabric of society remains a mystery. I hope she, and therefore the reader, will learn more in later books.