Last year, Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, the first in a projected young-adult trilogy about Katniss Everdeen, a heroic adolescent girl who crushed on a sexy hunter. In between romantic daydreams, Katniss shot strange beasts, dodged force fields, and battled murderous zombie werewolves usually while wearing fabulous glitzy outfits.
The Hunger Games, which was a lot of fun, became a YA best-seller, and Collins' fast-paced fantasy series seemed likely to be the next crossover hit. The novel was set in the nation of Panem, a futuristic dystopia ruled by an oppressive government that kept its people intimidated (and distracted) with an annual competition in which teens, coiffed and dressed by stylists, were forced to fight both each other and assorted dangers (remember those werewolves?) on live TV. The premise was wonderfully sick, and the first volume, which followed Katniss' unlikely triumph in the Games, was arresting and original.
The decidedly weaker sequel, Catching Fire, chronicles the fallout from Katniss' victory. She's inadvertently become a symbol of rebellion against the evil regime, and this being a teen novel she also has boyfriend problems. For PR purposes, Katniss pretends to be in love with her sweet-natured Games teammate Peeta Mellark, but she secretly pines for brooding Gale, a childhood friend. Except why? There's little distinction between the two thinly imagined guys, other than the fact that Peeta has a dopier name. Collins conjures none of the erotic energy that makes Twilight, for instance, so creepily alluring.
Katniss does, however, have plenty of pluck, and in the action-packed second half of the book, she again shows appealing mettle. The author describes her wearing a series of Cher-worthy costumes in which she confronts poisonous mists, deranged monkeys, and a flock of ''candy pink'' birds equipped with long beaks used to skewer human necks. Great stuff, this. Unfortunately, such startling apparitions too quickly appear and disappear, baubles randomly affixed to a story that's been stretched to gossamer thinness. C