Most parts of the country have been turned into "districts" with specialties. The ruling class lives somewhere in the Rockies in the Capitol. Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old heroine, lives in "District 12," an impoverished, hard luck community, dependent on coal mining, somewhere in Appalachia. (So what's changed, you ask.) Her district has a fence around it, stepping outside of which is punishable by death. But because her miner father is dead and her mother and sister would starve otherwise, Katniss has learned to hunt in the woods outside the compound. Very few in Katniss' community escape the hounding poverty, so people turn a blind eye to her activities. She finds food for her family and to sell in the black market.
In a ritual designed to never let the other districts forget who the boss is, the Capitol requires tributes. (Very ancient Rome and, as we later find out, many of the Capitol people have ancient Roman-sounding names.) It would be hard to pay a tribute if it were just money or coal but far easier than what the Capitol wants. Each year one girl and one boy between 12 and 18 are chosen to be sent to the Capitol to take part in The Hunger Games. Like a ramped-up "Survivor" game, with death as the loser's punishment, the children compete to be the last one standing.
Katniss' sister's name is drawn as the girl tribute. Gentle Prim wouldn't survive a minute, so Katniss volunteers. In a "reaping" ceremony televised throughout the country, people witness Katniss' first sacrifice. She is joined by Peeta, a boy she doesn't know very well but who saved her from starving when she was younger and whose kindness she has never forgotten. And now he is one of the 23 kids she must outlive.
All the tributes are transported to the arena, an area designed to accommodate the game. Like the TV show "Survivor," the arena changes each year, and this year it is a wooded area, not unlike what Katniss is used to. Maybe she has a chance after all, she thinks.
Collins manages to accomplish a lot in an exciting, moving, well-paced 374 pages. She gives us a look at a community in dire straits, a Capitol in which most of its citizens are pampered and morally corrupt, and a clever and heart-breaking "game" of survival among children who should be getting tattoos, sassing their parents, and listening to indecipherable music instead of trying to kill each other.
Collins has given us unforgettable side characters: from alcoholic and barely articulate Haymitch, the last winner District 12 had thirty years ago, who becomes Katniss and Peeta's mentor, to Cinna, Katniss' stylist from the Capitol. Yes, stylist. The Hunger Game is a televised event which spawns betting and promotions. It's a big deal in the Capitol and the contestants better look good and they better die well, too.
I am longing for the next book in the series, Catching Fire, and may move it way up to the top of a toppling pile of must-reads.