I never thought I would find a book that could give The Hunger Games some real competition, but now I have. The bar was set high, after all The Hunger Games was my gateway book into the world of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction and what led to this very blog. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed the books of this genre, I have, but it’s hard when you start realizing that maybe you started with the best and everything else is well, settling. There have been some books that seemed like they might give Suzanne Collins a run for her money such as Divergent and The Testing, though after the initial high of the first book in those series, the next books couldn’t sustain quality and passion of the first. There was the Ashfall series by Mike Mullin and the Ashes trilogy by Ilsa J. Blick which did manage to stay consistent across the series, but even at the outset they weren’t quite as epic that The Hunger Games was from the first chapter. Recently, I found an unexpected contender in Red Rising, though the last book is not out, so hopefully the series finishes on a high. The other likely contender is Victoria Scott’s Salt & Stone which continues the narrative of Fire & Flood.
In Fire & Flood instead of hunger games the competition is called The Brimstone Bleed. Yes, in both games the participants strive to survive them, but there is an extra twist, people don’t want to just survive the competition, they want to save a loved one close to them. Each participant has a grandparent, parent, sibling, etc. who is dying and if the race participant wins the last leg they will receive the cure for their loved one. The race itself has four stages covering different terrains and weather to contend with along with dangers that the creators of the game add to the environments.
In the first book, Fire & Flood, Tella survived by following Guy, who she finds out was put through harsh training by his father to prepare for the race. Tella and the rest of the participants didn’t know about the race until they individually received a mysterious package and invite. In Tella’s case it’s her older brother who is dying and her reason for joining. This second book, Salt & Stone shows Tella’s development from a follower to a leader. She not only wants to win the race for her brother, she wants to work with Guy to take down the sadistic organizers of the race so no one will ever have to experience the horror again. Although they are all competitors, Tella formed bonds with some of the competition in the first leg that survives into the next including Harper, Jaxon, Braun and Olivia and introduces additional racers such as Willow and Cotton. In fact, that’s one of Tella’s dilemmas, how does she balance the compassion and feelings she has for others with the competitive nature of the race. If she wins, her brother lives, but her friends’ loved ones die. There are also the Pandoras, genetically engineered animals designed to serve as protectors and assets for each competitor, but Tella bonds with her own, a fox named Madox, as well as the animals of other challengers who dropped out or died during the race. Tella can’t abide any abuse of these animals, which leads to situations that dramatically affect the storyline. She herself wonders aloud whether one must become an animal in order to survive let alone win, or can the participants retain their humanity?
Lest anyone reading this think that the book is all about these philosophical questions, let me reassure you that while these are the overarching themes of the book, they are layered over constant action and danger. Also, while there is a budding relationship between Tella and Guy, it doesn’t take away from the storyline; in fact it often serves as much needed comic relief that is needed during the dark deeds that happen in the book. I found the relationship more realistic than in many books of this genre that make me want to scream “seriously, how do you have time to worry about your hair when you are constantly on the verge of being killed?” Yes, Tella is a teenage girl, but she is in on the joke and pokes fun of the shallowness and angst of teen life in her inner monologues scattered throughout the book. In fact, if I were to make any constructive criticism of this second book, it’s that I would have appreciated reading more of Tella’s snarky comments; she has a bit of a Veronica Mars voice in my opinion.