In preparation for the forthcoming movie about which all the world seems to be Harry Potter/Twilight Saga/The Avengers-level excited, I have just finished rereading Suzanne Collins’s phenomenally successful YA trilogy, The Hunger Games. The first book, also entitled The Hunger Games, I had already read several times, but its sequels had only been so honored once each, upon their respective releases, and I had felt no need to repeat either experience. This was, therefore, the first time I had read the opening novel knowing full well how the closing one would end—damn you, Mockingjay!—and as I read Book 1, I got to wondering what it was, exactly, that I had so adored about it from the outset. And, in particular, why I had been so drawn to its first-person heroine, the energetic Katniss Everdeen.
As to the novel: look, there’s a lot to like. Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia is a popular science fiction subgenre to which YA has long been happily married; from The Chrysalids to The White Mountains and from Obernewtyn to The Eleventh Plague (to name but a very few), the two work well together, I think, because a world gone mad leaves a lot of scope for a youngster to be believably out on their own, in ever greater peril and defying ever greater odds. You’re not left wondering where the hell these kids’ parents are, or why Child Protective Services hasn’t stepped in long since, and that tends to make for a far more satisfying experience, I find. The fact that Collins then added to this general concept some other long-interesting elements of speculative fiction—the totalitarian regime, the vacuous ruling class, the brewing rebellion—to which she then threw in the ultimate in edge-of-the-seat adrenaline: a prize fight to the death (a la Running Man and Battle Royale), truly makes The Hunger Games a remarkable achievement—if hardly the marvelous wonder of invention that many of its young, SF-novice readers think it. (Sorry, kids, but a lot of this has been done before.)
As to why I had so much affection for Katniss…that was harder to figure. I mean, sure, I liked her devotion to her family, her honesty, her sense of duty and heightened protective instincts, but she was so manipulative, so indecisive and occasionally so cruel as to hardly be an ideal. I mean, I like a flawed protagonist and unreliable narrator very much indeed, but there was lacking in Katniss, to my mind, a certain…completeness, that ineffable sense of self, which conspired to make her words forgettable, even though her actions were not.
But you know what? The girl can shoot. And I find that, for some reason I can’t really articulate but I bet you know exactly what I mean, uncanny skill with any kind of projectile weapon somehow makes me a little weak at the knees. Yes, even in a sixteen year old girl. Who doesn’t exist. (It’s okay. It worries me a little, too.)
Think about it, though. Robin Hood. Sure, there’s the rob-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor angle, plus his Forbidden Love of the aristocratic Maid Marian and his ultimate boys’ club bromance with those ye olde Merrie Men. But what aspect of his story, whether told in Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe or animated Disney fox form, is more memorable than that time he split an arrow in half with another arrow? (Apocryphally, anyway.)
Or what about in The Lord of the Rings movies? Sure, we all loved Aragorn and Arwen and their timeless cross-species love—and man, as Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen rocked the hessian-and-greasy-hair look like no Gondorian’s business—but wasn’t it Orlando Bloom as Legolas, the slender elf with the killer bow, who relentlessly drew the eye in every fight scene, blonde tresses flying no less beautifully than his arrows, unerringly hitting their targets and making him all the more attractive?
Of course, Fantasy is peopled with skilled archers—A Song of Ice and Fire (cf. Game of Thrones) has the aptly-named Anguy the Archer; Wheel of Time has (the again aptly-named) Brigitte Silverbow; The Belgariad has Lelldorin, so very etc.—and Katniss is far from being the only archer in SFF YA. Hell, even C. S. Lewis had the lovely Susan wielding a bow and arrow in his Narnia books, which made her assuredly the most interesting of all the Pevensie kids; Percy Jackson, in his eponymous, mythology-laden series, has been known to make some astounding shots when it counts (and he’s not even a son of Artemis or Apollo); and P. C. and Kristin Cast’s vampy House of Night series features the unfortunate, oft-dead Stark, whose legendary marksmanship means that any arrow he fires hits his target, except that means not whomever he is aiming at but whomever he is thinking of at the time…which you would think might make it hard for the guy to get dates, but our heroine, Zoe, loves him anyway, despite the obvious danger.
Again, the powerful appeal of the marksman wins out.
Elsewhere, comic books are full of heroes—and villains— with almost supernaturally good aim: Bullseye, Hawkeye, Green Arrow, Red Arrow, Jagged Bow (comic books have many virtues, but subtlety of nomenclature isn’t one of them), each one of whom is made unutterably more interesting by the simple possession of their impressive skill with a bow. DC Comics’ villain Bedovian doesn’t use a bow and arrow, but since he is a giant turtle who travels through the far reaches of the galaxy, sans spaceship, in order to track down his targets and then shoot them dead from quite literally light years away… yeah. He’s cool.
Because it’s not just accuracy with a bow and arrow that I admire and find all kinds of sexy; guns, though they trouble me in real life, can be hot, hot, hot when in the hands of a fictional someone who really knows how to use them. Well… maybe not so hot in the hands of an evil, star-spanning giant turtle, but then again, he is an assassin, and assassins are weirdly appealing, aren’t they—especially considering what they do for a living and the moral objections we must all surely have against it?
Happily, we also have the less ambiguously iniquitous—though sometimes not by much—state-sponsored assassins who come in several different guises, and of whom we usually have less cause to disapprove. Perhaps they’re snipers, like Bones’s Booth (David Boreanaz) and NCIS’s Gibbs (Mark Harmon); or spies, like La Femme Nikita’s Michael (Roy Dupuis) and Burn Notice’s Michael Westen; or even gunslingers, like Justified’s Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Deadwood’s Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant; the man can just do no wrong with a holster around his hips).
Indeed, the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota, was apparently a Mecca for marksman from all across the burgeoning land of the free, and it seems that the enduring legend of most, if not all, Wild West heroes rests almost entirely on their skill with a six-shooter—from Billy the Kid to Wild Bill Hickock, and from Annie Oakley to Calamity Jane (I loved that Doris Day musical as a kid, and as much for “Calam” and Hickock’s shooting contests as for their tempestuous courtship and all of those catchy songs), their names live on because they could shoot stuff really, really well.
Military heroes, also, are big ones for the bullet-driven bullseyes, especially when it comes to their appearances in romance novels… and sometimes it’s even a military heroine who steals the scene on the gun range. For example, in Suzanne Brockman’s Troubleshooters series we treat with a squad of Navy SEALs whose best marksman is a woman, the exhausting Alyssa, whom I would probably find completely tiresome were it not for her way with a reticule.
(Side note: to Historical Romance fans, the word “reticule” undoubtedly signifies a small handbag that dangles from the wrist. In artillery terms, however—at which, if you are like me and also a Military Science Fiction fan, you may have had cause to wrinkle your brow—a reticule is the sight through which a shooter aims when using a rifle. The English language is Messed. Up.)
So, why is good aim such a striking quality? Is it something as simple as confidence? We all know how compelling that can be in a person, and a certain level of Zen-like calm and general self-sufficiency is definitely a prerequisite for any kind of advanced aiming ability. Or is it perhaps that, on some unconscious level, we feel that someone so deadly, but who works from a distance, is somehow, well, safer? I mean, I find swordfighters and ninjas and the occasional Scottish Laird with a giant claymore universally awesome, but there is a menace to them, an inherent threat of imminent, visceral violence that would, if I were thrust into the thick of their kind of fighting, make me very uncomfortable. Not that assassins and the like don’t often also enjoy other martial proficiencies, but I really think that I would take a precision sniper over a brawny foot soldier-type any day, because a bullet hole delivered to an enemy several hundred meters away keeps said enemy, and their blood, away from me. Furthermore, I would take an archer over anyone with a gun, because arrows don’t tend to go quite so boom.
Also, archery is just so… elegant, isn’t it? It’s Robin Hood, splitting that arrow. It’s Paris, hitting Achilles on his troublesome heel. It’s Katniss, facing down the Gamemakers. It’s just downright cool. And I think that goes to the very heart of why anyone with a quiver on their back tends to make me… er… quiver.
(Yep, English: Messed. Up.)
Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.