Five teenaged girls burst out of the Starbucks washroom, wielding bows and suction-tipped arrows. Breathless, they spilled into the adjoining Chapters, where others of their ilk had begun to gather just as the store was closing. Some had painted their faces with sparkling flames, others wore garish wigs. Techno music pulsed overhead.
This odd scene unfolded on Vancouver's Granville Street. But in the final hours of Aug. 23, similar scenes played out in bookstores across North America, as hordes of young readers gathered for the release of Suzanne Collins's Mockingjay, the final instalment in her Hunger Games trilogy and the most highly anticipated young adult novel of the year.
The frenzy began in 2008, when Scholastic published The Hunger Games, a dystopian novel set in a post-apocalyptic future. In it, North America (now called Panem) is carved up into 12 districts ruled by an oppressive, opulent Capitol that reaps their resources.
Each year, to remind Panem of its unquestionable power, the Capitol takes one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18, from each district and places them in an arena, where they fight each other to the death. The prize: a year's worth of food for the victor's district.
The twist: All is televised. It's Gladiator meets Survivor.
Book One begins with Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl from District 12, volunteering to take her little sister's place when she is chosen as a Hunger Games tribute. In the arena, Katniss forms an alliance with the other District 12 tribute, Peeta, who soon confesses his love for her, live on-air. Assuming it's a move to win viewer sympathy, she plays along, unaware of the enormous impact their actions will have on the people of Panem.
The Hunger Games was an immediate success; it appeared on The New York Times bestseller list soon after its release and remains there more than 100 weeks later. More than four million copies of Books One and Two are now in print.
In preparation for Mockingjay, Scholastic raised its print run from 750,000 to 1.2 million and banned advance reading copies to prevent spoilers. Readers took to online forums with their burning questions: Would Katniss defeat the Capitol's evil president? Would she choose noble Peeta over her handsome friend Gale? Would Twilight's Kristen Stewart actually be chosen play her in the upcoming movie? Debate raged.
In its first week of publication, 450,000 copies of Mockingjay were sold. The third book of the Twilight series, in contrast, sold 250,000 copies in its first week.
So what makes this series so popular - and not just with teen readers? Vikki VanSickle, manager of Toronto's Flying Dragon Bookshop and a YA author herself, reports that "every other person who comes in to buy [ Mockingjay] is an adult."
She says the series' premise has great appeal because, "Particularly in North America, that concept seems taboo - something we shouldn't be allowed to read about." Young readers feel like they're tackling something more sophisticated.
VanSickle also thinks the author's deft writing deserves praise. "Suzanne Collins has the ability to surprise you," she says, "and yet the twists always feel organic." She adds that she hasn't seen such an ability to create "shocking, but perfect" twists since J.K. Rowling.
And let's not forget Collins's memorable characters, especially Katniss. She's strong and empowering, but still so vulnerable that readers can actually sympathize with her as she apologetically offs her adversaries.
But back to the fangirls in Chapters, decorating cupcakes while waiting for Mockingjay's official midnight release. Like all devotees, they had only one question in mind (aside from Team Gale or Team Peeta?). Could Mockingjay possibly live up to its predecessors?
At this point, if you haven't read Books One and Two, get thee to a bookstore. Spoilers lie ahead, and anyway, readers won't understand Mockingjay if they haven't read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.
In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta come to realize that their actions in the Games sparked a revolt against the Capitol. That revolt quickly escalates into all-out war, and the novel ends with District 12 getting obliterated and Peeta being taken prisoner.
Mockingjay opens with a scene that sets the tone for the entire novel: Katniss stands, despairing, among the ashes of District 12. Those who escaped are living underground in District 13, a previously unknown district where rebels have been plotting to overthrow the Capitol for years.
The rebels expect her to be the face of the revolution, motivating the troops with televised speeches. But Katniss is ravaged from watching her loved ones tortured and killed, and it's all she can do to be present, let alone inspirational. Only when she sees Capitol hovercraft bombing a hospital she just visited does she accept her role, determined now to kill the president.
Just as Katniss is a more ragged and raw character than we've seen so far, so too is Mockingjay a different book. The stakes are up, the action and violence relentless. This is no longer a game. This is war.
And yet, as Collins points out, elements of the game remain. Those who used to manipulate viewers' emotions with carefully selected video clips of the Games now do so with war footage and catchy slogans. It's a valuable lesson in propaganda and media awareness.
Collins cites her upbringing as one source of inspiration for the series. The daughter of a career air force and Vietnam vet, she studied the causes and effects of battles and believes that young people need to learn about the nature and complexities of war much earlier in life.
And so she presents them, through brutal fight scenes and countless deaths, leaving little time to mourn the fallen.
While the ending might not satisfy those engrossed in the love triangle, it is apt. It leaves us numb and exhausted, like the revolution's few survivors, left to rebuild their world in hopes that war will never happen again.
Rachelle Delaney was one of a few self-conscious adults at the Vancouver launch of Mockingjay. Her latest children's novel, The Lost Souls of Island X, was recently published.
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