Only one of them was supposed to survive the Hunger Games, but Katniss and Peeta have outwitted the Capitol and forced the leaders of Panem to change the rules so that both of them can be declared winners. Of course, such flagrant disobedience – not to mention the widespread popular appeal that lets them get away with it (or at least appear to) – can’t go unpunished. Katniss has become a symbol to the twelve Districts that the Capitol can be challenged, so the Capitol determines to make an example of her to show what happens to those who question their authority.
But they need to be smart about it. They can’t just kill her, and she knows it. Going along with the traditional victors’ tour of the Capitol and the Districts, Katniss and Peeta know the Capitol will find a way to kill them that will be politically acceptable. That politically acceptable execution involves staging a special Hunger Games in which all the contestants are previous winners, nominally to determine who is the greatest of them all. But revolutionary whispers are spreading through the Districts, and not all of the other contestants are Katniss and Peeta’s enemies. The problem is telling who is really an ally, and whether the people who claim District 13 wasn’t obliterated can be trusted either.
Whilst never less than a good read (better than that, really), the second book in the trilogy suffers for much of its length from a distinct sense of being setup for the third book, complete with multiple cliffhangers. For the first two thirds of the novel Katniss is a largely passive character who has thoughts about running away and going into hiding, but doesn’t act on them. Meanwhile many of the events that happen around her show how Panem has changed (for better and for worse) since her victory in the Hunger Games, but she is not the driver of the story, she is just a passenger. That may have been Suzanne Collins’ point, seeing as Katniss has become this symbol for rebellion completely unwittingly, and much of Katniss’s thoughts are about dealing with becoming this icon.
The special Hunger Games is squeezed into the final third of the book, and feels a little rushed as a result. Obviously Collins can’t repeat herself, so sensibly focuses on the suspense derived from the fact that not everybody is out to kill Katniss this time but she doesn’t know who. Less graphically brutal than the first book, this one makes a lot of promises about what Mockingjay will deliver (and as I’m now reading it, it’s fair to say it is – so far – succeeding). Catching Fire is not a weak book, it’s just not as good as The Hunger Games.