The third installment of Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy may be this summer’s hottest book.

I seem to have lost a few hours on Tuesday. And it’s all the fault of a little bird.

I came home from work, as usual. I fixed dinner for the family, but sort of skipped the eating part (although I vaguely remember nibbling on half of a sandwich before turning it over to my son). There was a book waiting upstairs for me. I hadn’t really planned to read the whole thing in one sitting, but the next thing I knew, I looked up, shaken, a full 390 pages later.

As just about anyone who follows young adult literature is aware, Mockingjay, the third novel in Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular “Hunger Games” trilogy, came out Tuesday, complete with midnight parties at bookstores and 1.2 million copies in print.

If you haven’t read the first two novels yet, step away from the book slowly and try not to attract the attention of the birdie on the cover. There’s a war on, and Collins doesn’t have a lot of time to explain things to stragglers. At her normal plotting speed, Collins operates well over the speed limit, and she’s using rocket fuel for most of “Mockingjay.”

The books center around teenager Katniss Everdeen, who takes the place of her younger sister in an obscene competition right out of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” In what’s left of America, 24 children are forced every year to compete to the death on live television in “The Hunger Games.” Only one can survive.

Katniss and her fellow competitor, Peeta, managed to beat those odds. The totalitarian government made sure they were suitably punished in the second book, “Catching Fire,” by forcing them back into the arena and cracking down on their home of District 12, which before the government had always been content to simply let starve.

“Mockingjay” picks up right where “Catching Fire” leaves off. Katniss has been kidnapped right out of the arena by rebels from District 13, which supposedly no longer exists. Peeta, who was left behind, is in the hands of the sadistic President Snow. And District 12 has been firebombed out of existence. Katniss’s mother, little sister, and childhood friend Gale are among the survivors who have found underground sanctuary in District 13. (Fans’ favorite question – does Katniss choose sweet, protective Peeta or dark, brooding Gale – gets conclusively answered in “Mockingjay,” but romance takes a back seat to rebellion.)

The rebels, who include several former winners of the game, want Katniss to be the symbol of their struggle, the living embodiment of the Mockingjay pin she wore as a symbol of protest. They are a little surprised when she isn’t immediately overcome by the honor of being chosen as figurehead – well, except for her alcohol-drenched mentor, Haymitch, who remains an acerbic delight throughout the books.

Katniss, who is horror-struck at what’s probably happening to Peeta, has kind of had enough of dressing up for the cameras and is frankly sick to death of playing games. However, leaving President Snow in charge is not an option.

The trilogy isn’t for everyone. I have a friend who adores young adult literature, who wandered innocently into “The Hunger Games” at the recommendation of a teenager she used to teach. She was looking for some light, fun reading at the time. She hasn’t been back. After all, the end of civilization occurs before the trilogy even begins, and the only humor tends to be of the gallows sort.

Take Katniss’s exchange with Johanna, another Games winner-turned-rebel. “Jealousy is certainly involved,” Johanna says, when Katniss asks if that’s why she hates her. “I also think you’re a little hard to swallow. With your tacky romantic drama and your defender-of-the-helpless act. Only it isn’t an act, which makes you more unbearable. Please feel free to take this personally.”

“You should have been the Mockingjay. No one would’ve had to feed you lines,” Katniss replies.

“Mockingjay” is without question the most brutal of the trilogy. Nobody emerges unscathed – very bad things happen to everyone from fan favorites down to characters so minor a reader has to pause and think, “Now, who was that again?” before recoiling in horror at their fate. Collins doesn’t take war lightly – her characters debate the morality involved in tactics used to try to overthrow the rotting, immoral government, and they pay a high cost for those tactics.

It is also an entirely gripping read. In Katniss, Collins has crafted a heroine so fierce and tenacious that this reader will follow her anywhere.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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