The marketing didn't help. (Hint to publishers: while I understand that the teenage girl market is very important to the success of any YA fiction novel, "If you like Twilight, you'll love this..." is not an endorsement for many people who might otherwise buy the book.)
The Hunger Games and Twilight are both YA novels with a teenage girl protagonist. That's pretty much the only thing they have in common.
I loved this book. It's not perfect; I'll discuss its flaws below. I won't call it the greatest thing since Harry Potter. (Then again, I loved Harry Potter but can rant at length about the flaws in that series.) I like a lot of books. I even like some really crappy books. So the fact that I love a book doesn't necessarily mean it's a great work of literature. But the books I love are the ones that stick with me after I put them down, and leave me with a sense of unresolved issues, righteous indignation at the characters' dilemma, and a genuine concern for what happens to them. And I wanted to know what's going to happen next to poor Katniss Everdeen so much that I've already begun reading the sequel, Catching Fire
So, let's start with the premise. The Hunger Games is about a bunch of children being forced to fight each other to the death. A lot of readers might have a problem with that. I, in fact, was not looking forward to reading about children killed off as if they were just opponents that the heroine had to wade through, and was prepared to toss the book if it read like a bloody computer game. But it doesn't. Katniss Everdeen, throughout the book, is painfully, morally aware of what a horrible situation they have all been put in. Even when she is forced to kill -- and even when she's facing "villainous" opponents -- she never forgets that they are all victims of an evil system. She is compelling, believable, and sympathetic as a very tough girl and a survivor, but someone who absolutely hates what she's being made to do and the people who are making her do it.
Collins has a deft touch with the other characters as well. Each one gets just as much characterization as their role demands, but even the "evil" kids are given enough details that they become human, not just monsters that Katniss has to kill.
The writing is taut and descriptive. The story itself is well-paced; I don't recall any sections that dragged or bored me, even occasional flashbacks to Katniss's childhood. Action and drama comes pretty much nonstop.
What I found most remarkable about this book, though, was that it was neither original nor surprising -- just about everything that happened was completely predictable, including the deaths and the ending, and yet I found my stomach clenched in knots waiting for it to happen. Dammit, I really cared about these characters. I felt what Katniss Everdeen did -- despair and rage and grief at such an atrocious, unwinnable situation. I don't get moved easily, especially not by a plot in which you can see the bad stuff coming a mile away, but like I said, I'm already tearing into the sequel and hoping that eventually there will be a happy ending.
Okay, the flaws.
First, there's nothing in this book that's original. Kids being made to fight each other to the death? Battle Royale. A hero forced to play a lethal game while the audience watches it as a reality show? The Running Man. (By the way, read the Stephen King novel: the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie bears no resemblance to the original story.) Dystopian police state in a post-apocalyptic future? Yeah, too many to list.
This didn't actually register as a flaw to me, though, because it was all in the implementation. No, the story isn't that original, but it still sucked me in.
Second, as I mentioned, it's predictable. Since this is a YA novel, everything gets telegraphed, and at times, Katniss is unnecessarily dense just so the reader can figure out what's going on before she does. The predictability didn't keep it from being a page-turner, for me, but there are not a lot of twists and turns here.
Third, again, being a YA novel, a lot of things get simplified, especially when it comes to the Capital, which apparently does evil things just for the sake of being evil. Oh, we're given explanations -- the Hunger Games are "to keep the Districts in line," etc. -- but it's quite black and white. The next book(s) are apparently going to go into the politics of this dystopian society in a bit more detail, but I'm not expecting a whole lot of depth.
None of that interfered with my enjoyment of the book, though. Brilliant and innovative, no, but The Hunger Games made me, someone who is far, far outside of the Twilight demographic, a fan.