A Hunger Games book arriving during massively uncertain times seems like it could be an Onion headline, but Suzanne Collins’ new prequel was announced over a year ago. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place decades before the original trilogy, during the 10th Hunger Games, and focuses on the villain of the original series, Coriolanus Snow. Instead of being president of Panem, he’s now a student assigned to mentor a tribute — the first time such a role is present in one of the games.
On paper, it’s an odd vantage point from which to revisit the world, especially when the main series focused on rebellion against oppressors and felt thematically complete by the final installment. Why focus on and potentially sympathize with a tyrant who lost the right for sympathy by forcing innocent children to kill one another? But in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Collins weaves together the origin story about the diabolical Snow with revelations of how the Hunger Games series came to be. The book, while not an essential addition to canon, layers on darkly satisfying implications to the original series and makes for a compelling return to the Hunger Games world.
[Ed. note: This review contains mild spoilers for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.]
Compared to the Games that Katniss Everdeen survived, the gauntlets of Snow’s era are devoid of pomp and circumstance — there are no stylists or costumes or training scores. Capitol citizens don’t even watch the games, finding them too brutal to stomach. Desperate to maintain control over the citizens of Districts and the Capitol alike, the Gamemakers task Coriolanus, a high-achieving student at the Academy, with finding a way to get people hyped. Secretly broke and banking on success in the Games to snag a scholarship to university, Coriolanus becomes determined to succeed at all costs.
The 10th Hunger Games is one that readers are unfamiliar with, built on a specific cruelty that can’t be fluffed up by Hollywood love stories, flashy costumes, or a tie-in makeup line. Instead of enjoying cushy Capitol luxuries, the tributes are corralled into cages and barely fed. It’s a stark contrast to Katniss’ almost extravagant welcome, where she dined on rich foods and wore a custom-made gown. Coriolanus becomes the one to change that.
The young Snow is a compelling character: a poor little rich boy, stripped of all his wealth, trying desperately to bring glory back to his family name. He’s clever, charming, and cunning, with a soft spot for loved ones, and he shares with the average Capitol citizen an ambivalence to the Games. While a hero’s story might see Coriolanus become sympathetic to the Districts, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has him buying into the brutality and packaging it up to delude Capitol citizens into accepting and appreciating it. It’s a reminder of the power of propaganda — how putting the veneer of a good narrative atop any awful thing can get people to believe the message.
Complicating Coriolanus’ story is Lucy Gray, a charismatic songstress from District 12 who becomes Coriolanus’ tribute. When Lucy is reaped, she immediately stuns the audience by performing a song. What she lacks in fighting skills she makes up for with staged graciousness and charm. Coriolanus has the realization that Capitol citizens might be more invested in the Games if they were invested in the tributes. He begins to present ideas that will eventually manifest into the events readers know: getting people to send gifts into the Arena, for instance, as well as emphasizing alliances and origin stories. In an online world built on parasocial relationships and internet personas who create empires based on being your very special friend, it doesn’t feel like a stretch at all.
Over the course of the book, Coriolanus begins to see Lucy as a tool for his possible success (he knows if he can win with an underdog from a scrappy District, he’ll be more impressive) and as a romantic interest. The forbidden romance tied up with a District 12 girl is a dark echo to Katniss and Peeta’s love story: Peeta did anything to ensure Katniss was free, and Coriolanus will do anything to ensure Lucy is his alone. Even when he does work to help her, it’s always in his own personal interest. The theme percolates through the novel. Snow sometimes does good things, but it’s always either unintentional or an outgrowth of his own agenda.
Collins works hard to reverse-engineer elements of her original trilogy, explaining things that were either taken for granted or undefined enough to shade with history. The ploy works sometimes. The entire construction of the Games lead-up is cleverly done with an almost metatextual commentary. And the fact that Snow was once in love with a girl from District 12 does give more depth to his immediate contempt for Katniss and Peeta’s star-crossed lovers gimmick. Almost every song sung in the main books finds its way into Songbirds and Snakes, though some land a little too heavy-handed. Other references, such as a passing nod to Katniss’ favorite lamb and plum stew, have the impact of “haha remember this” or “you’ll never believe that!” rather than becoming a cornerstone of world-building.
Delving into this backstory gives the novel greater meaning. At first, someone familiar with the series might miss the parade and the interviews and the fancy dresses — those were the fun parts, after all! — and it’s hard to read Collins’ lines about children being prodded like zoo animals, or being denied basic food and water, without tensing up. But that’s exactly the point: Watching too much brutality turned the Capitol away from the Games. The costumes, the interviews, and the plucky underdog tributes made the horrors go down easy. Realizing that the Capitol, too, was once jaded by the Games, and that the very elements that readers find engaging — the interviews, the parades, the training scores — were deliberately engineered to appeal to them, is a clever construction on Collins’ end. We the readers are no better than the Capitol if we find ourselves giddy imagining tribute dresses and chariot looks.
Collins’ choice to switch from the close first-person perspective of the Hunger Games trilogy to a more distant third person is also a boost. Katniss’ inner monologue, though necessary to fuel her personal motivations, paled in comparison to Collins’ descriptions of outward action. Writing Coriolanus in a limited third-person viewpoint creates distance from the villain, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about his actions and enjoy more refined prose. The first two-thirds of the novel takes place in the lead-up to and during the 10th Hunger Games, which involves plenty of outward reactions — be it scrambling away from the scrappy tributes when tossed into their transportation car, or dodging a rebel bomb. Coriolanus isn’t always directly involved in the action, especially as far as the Hunger Games itself is concerned, but he watches it all. The last third tosses him into District 12, away from his Capitol luxuries and comforts, and forces him to confront what he knows and feels to be true. There are still moments of inner thought that aren’t very smooth — especially at the slightly rushed climax — but the character work laid out throughout the novel ensures that while Snow’s ultimate decision may have come at the end of a quick internal monologue, it’s not unfounded.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes makes the younger version of President Snow complex without undermining his ultimate arc in the original trilogy. Snow has traits that could’ve manifested into something good: He cares for his tribute, he cares for his family, he’s the only “friend” of an outcast classmate. He even has moments where he could’ve made a heroic choice. But Snow only actively makes choices in his own interest, and though he may briefly feel guilt over some of the consequences, he never once regrets what he’s done. Collins reminds readers that even the most horrible people may have at one point done the right thing, but that doesn’t make them any less despicable or less worth overthrowing.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is out now wherever books are sold.
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