You may have heard recently about a best-selling young adult series with a dark, twisting plot, a heart-wrenching love triangle, and a feisty, raven-haired heroine. If you’re thinking of Twilight, think again.

The central premise of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy involves 24 teenagers murdering each other on live television. The Hunger Games and its successive novels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, have spent weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and boast over 12 million copies in print. A film adaptation with a star-studded cast is set to come out in March, and the sequel, Catching Fire, will premier in 2013. The Hunger Games is the next big thing.

However, while these novels read like addictive page-turners and are aimed at teenagers, the books have violent, gritty, and deeply satirical themes that will entertain a wide variety of adult readers as well.

The novels, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia called Panem, require each of the 12 districts, in what remains of North America, to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the games each year. The competitors, known as tributes, travel to the Capitol and participate in a televised competition within a man-made arena. Twenty-four teenagers enter the arena, replete with terrifying manufactured challenges, where they must kill one another to survive. Only one walks out. These are the Hunger Games.

The parallels to reality television are striking and will make the average American television viewer squirm in his easy chair the next time a Survivor spin-off airs. Each contestant has a stylist who creates the look they will sport in the arena. Before the competition, there are a series of individual interviews with each of the tributes in which they must quickly establish a distinct personality that will set them apart from the rest, and perhaps win them some fans. If they are lucky, wealthy sponsors will be moved to slip them supplies during the games. This is not to mention the obvious fact that one by one, tributes are eliminated in an unending variety of cruel and humiliating ways until one victor emerges. Although death by dehydration, hypothermia, or starvation is a common occurrence, the game makers do their best to make the deaths entertaining — this means combat.

The gripping narrative centers on Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, tributes from the impoverished District 12 in the 74th Hunger Games, as well as their friends, family and opponents.

Panem’s state-controlled media is only a small part of the Capitol’s evil and unresponsive government, reminiscent of Soviet Russia or other totalitarian regimes. Panem’s setup actually feels closest to that of ancient Rome, in which a capitol city enjoyed enormous luxuries and cutting edge technologies, while the conquered regions lacked the basics and knew almost nothing of life in the ruling city. For denizens of the Capitol, the games are a source of entertainment and little more. For those in the districts they represent brutal domination by the ruling class. A nefarious and grotesque president, who will stop at nothing to hang on to power, rules Panem with an iron fist.

The subjects of gladiator-style combat and tyrannical governments have already been explored in books and film such as 1984 and Marathon Man, but Collins revisits old themes without ever feeling stale or clichéd. The media have just the right combination of absurdity and understated danger. Protagonist Katniss Everdeen is a rare kind of gladiator—a female one. Most Capitol citizens are not portrayed as automatons or inherently bad people, but rather as sweet, somewhat silly folks whose fortune to live in such a grand city has squelched any curiosity they might have about the outside world.

While the books involve biological weapons, starvation, and young people dying the most violent deaths, they studiously avoid almost any discussions of sex. This only stands out because of the irreducibly brutal nature of the carnage in novels marketed to the under-20 set. A teenager ripped apart by ferocious, genetically-altered wolves? Yes.  Heavy petting between teens engaged to be married? No. This is in line with other popular young adult series like Twilight and Harry Potter. While the series’ chastity does not detract from the excellent pacing and fascinating narrative, a palpable will-they-or-won’t-they vibe exists in all three, especially since romance plays a sizeable role in the action.

The name Panem comes from the Latin phrase: “Panem et Circenses,” translating to “bread and circuses,” and suggests a populace that has given up political involvement and satisfies itself with consumption. When asked in an interview with Scholastic what she hopes readers will take away from a reading of the Hunger Games, Collins replied, “Questions about how elements of the book might be relevant in their own lives.  And, if they’re disturbing, what they might do about them.” She has given them no shortage of questions.

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