What I can definitively say without spoiling anything is that Catching Fire, the second book of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, is much better than the first. I quickly found myself in rapt attention of what happened on the page where, by contrast, the first book had me mildly entertained but nothing more. For those of you considering reading the trilogy, I can now say that I do in fact recommend it. It was exciting to discover that my decision to read onward was worth my time in spades!
Now I will explain why I enjoyed it, so one must be aware of spoilers from this point onward.
Consequences and Changes
One of my problems with the first book was that it didn't go much into the ramifications of what happened throughout. There were a number of moments where the authority of the Capitol was subtly or overtly challenged (Katniss' clothing, shooting at the judges, the silent salute of the 12th district, the suicide pact). I was often frustrated because the apparent reaction was for the author to sweep it under the rug and not address the consequences of such provocations. People merely ooh'ed and aah'ed Katniss' flame/mockingjay motif. Her aggression was treated merely as a spirited approach to the games. The salute was an intense moment not mentioned or addressed again. And the suicide pact merely provoked a quick get-out-of-jail-free reaction that preemptively ended the games without much effort. I ended the first book lamenting how it seemed like things just happened without any lasting impact, lessening my interest in events as they played out.
But, in Catching Fire, it becomes abundantly clear early on that an enormous amount of activity was going on behind the scenes. Within just a few chapters, we see that people are being killed for dissenting, that full-blown riots are taking place in some of the districts, and that Katniss is now on a VERY short leash for her actions in the previous books. The tension is omnipresent and makes for gripping reading as we see exactly how things pan out, feeling very reminiscent of secret police crackdowns throughout history.
"Why the change?" I asked myself. I wondered why we had to wait until the second book to see anything truly momentous occurring. Then I realized that the answer is simple. It is the viewpoint's fault. By the author choosing a limited third person viewpoint focused only on Katniss, we couldn't possibly know what ramifications her actions had on anyone; she is shuttled about in a Capitol controlled environment and then thrust into a scenario (the Games) where she can't know anything of what is going on outside. As a writer myself, I thought about it and wondered if the series would have been better improved by giving a viewpoint to another character such as one of the judges/overseers, like Haymitch. Then it could have had more depth to it earlier in the story, instead of feeling initially shallow.
Hunger Games: Round Deux
One thing that I initially disliked about Catching Fire is that, midway through, we discover that Katniss has to fight in the games. Again. Now, maybe I'm not like most people, but I found the arena fights of the series to be the weakest part. The devil is in the details or, rather, the lack thereof. The author's sparse description of setting and side characters makes it hard to feel for Katniss. And the moments where she makes dumb decisions based on her terrible instinct of other people are countless.
But, despite my nitpicking, I thought that the games were handled much better this time around. Having the competitors be winners of old Games gave more weight and personality to each of them, making this round feel more intense. Another thing I especially liked was giving the dangers of the playing field a system of their own. In the first book, the environmental hazards seemed random and without rhyme or reason. By contrast, the concept of having the obstacles subject to time zones and the island's layout being akin to the structure of a clock was quite an interesting change.
All in all, I enjoyed Catching Fire much more than its predecessor and, because I actually LIKED the previous book, this is indeed an indicator that this book was great! The epic jaw-dropping moments are plentiful and the characters have much more depth to them. Though Katniss is still kind of a dumbass (her actions at the end of this book merely cement her idiot status for me), she actually has some amount of compassion this time around, suggesting that she's actually growing as a character. Haymitch becomes more awesome and Peeta, at times, made me wish that he were the protagonist and not Katniss. And that is a pretty amazing change considering how he was simply the dead weight, starry-eyed, baker's boy first time around!
But I did observe that, for me at least, the books tend to be at their strongest when addressing the struggle between the Capitol and the populace. The Hunger Games themselves, while occasionally exciting, just seem like sideshows, especially when you know that the real enemy is outside of them. Hopefully now that Katniss is a rebel, we won't need to see the Games again. The sequel will tell.
I did, in fact, read the third book, Mockingjay, after this one. However, I did not finish, having lost interest 3/4ths of the way through the book and then looking up how it ended. The reason was not because the book was horrible (in fact, it was initially engrossing and another improvement to the series) but because I lost interest in the characters, the events, and the villain. To speak plainly, Peeta is lost, Gale becomes bloodthirsty, and Katniss becomes an annoyingly emo waif who only gets worse as the book goes on. Considering how she was always a bit daft and irritating, the expansion of her more frustrating characteristics made me fed up with the book at large in comparatively short order.
This could have been rescued by an interesting villain, but President Snow has always been one-dimensionally evil with no redeeming characteristics. The overall power of the Capitol is overshadowed in a surprisingly fast amount of time and, for no good reason, the 'heroes' decide to mount an assassination mission on the President despite the complete lack of reason or need to do so. Beyond that, I read that a lot of people get killed at the end, mostly as a result of Katniss being ridiculous, leaving her an embittered old woman finally married to Peeta. Just 'cause.
Thus I suppose it came down to a lack of complexity, a lack of interest in what was going on, and marginal attachment to the characters that did it in for me. At least at the end. I'd recommend it up until right after they finish the mountain/Peacekeeper stronghold mission. After that it just felt like it went downhill from there.