book reviews

Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Suzanne Collins is back, more than a decade after debuting the amazingly successful The Hunger Games series, with this new prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I have to admit being a little late to the hype party. My friend asked if I had read the book before I even realized it was coming.

Problem now corrected. I finished the novel last weekend.

The book features 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow, our (spoilers for Hunger Games) main villain from the original trilogy. He’s not yet a villain, though, but every bit as ambitious as you might imagine someone who is destined to be President of Panem. Coriolanus is assigned to mentor the tribute from District 12 during the tenth Hunger Games. He sees a successful showing as his way out of the relative poverty his upperclass family now endures, and his ticket to college and security. What will he – and his tribute, Lucy Gray Baird – do to win?

I actually liked The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes better than the original trilogy. True, without the trilogy, it wouldn’t mean as much. There are loads of allusions to the trilogy, origins of songs, certain smells and weapons, the operations of the games.

But while I found these “origin stories” interesting, that’s not why I really enjoyed the book. The trilogy is about war and power from the side of the oppressed. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is about war and power from the side of the oppressor. I think this book is a fascinating meditation on privilege. Coriolanus Snow doesn’t start as either a saint or a villain. He’s a survivor and someone who wants to excel and improve his life. Sure, eating cabbage and not being able to pay taxes for the family home are not as dire as what folks may face in the districts, but they are real stakes to him. I interpret it as a comment on first world problems, that nevertheless are real problems to those who face them, enough to motivate them to hold on to the power and privilege they have. This book helped explain why someone might not fully agree with some things their society does, may even be repulsed by some of them, but will still buy into the idea that “This is is best we have. I should support this flawed system because without it something worse will take its place, for everyone or for me personally.”

It was intriguing to watch Coriolanus’s journey in exploring his own society. He comes of age in a society he doesn’t completely agree with, but is determined to do well in. At times I empathized with his choices. At times I despised his lack of true care for other characters, or his sense of possession toward others. But at all times his character remained clear and consistent. If Lucas had showed Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side like this, more of a slow fall based on a series of choices completely in character, the Star Wars prequels would have been way better.

One of my favorite parts of the trilogy was the role of the media. How can you manipulate it to gain power? Does the media create a sense of false emotional connection to those it objectifies? Are we the viewer complicit in the exploitation and cheapening of lives for entertainment? The Ballad of Songbird and Snakes explores these themes through a much more saavy female lead – Lucy Gray Baird. Not saying Katniss wasn’t saavy in her own way, but Lucy practically invents playing an audience in the Hunger Games. She and Coriolanus Snow are a pair to watch in using their wits and perception to get what they want.

The side characters in this book are also memorable. The patriotic and dignified grandmother, the loyal cousin Tigris, the creepy Dr. Gaul. Coriolanus’s complex relationship with fellow student Sejanus is another standout of the book. Side note – have a field day researching the etymology of all the names in the book and how they reflect character.

Collins rode in on the first book wave of the YA dystopian craze. Here she is again as the bloom is off the rose. (Yes that was a reference to the books.) I was skeptical she would find something new to say in the cacophony of dystopian voices, when we have grown weary of the usual tropes. But for me, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes worked. It brought back themes I enjoyed in the original trilogy while exploring them from new angles. Anyone in a place of privilege in their society should take heed of the tale of Coriolanus Snow and his justifications for what he will do to land on top. 

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