Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

In the time of Katniss Everdeen, Coriolanus Snow is the tyrannical president of Panem, a cruel man who uses the Hunger Games as a weapon against any who would rebel. But once, long ago, he was just a aristocratic teenage boy in the Capitol, raised in the shadow of a terrifying rebellion that gave birth to the Hunger Games.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a look back at the early days of Panem’s dystopian tyranny, and a glimpse of how Snow turned into the president he would later become. This tale is a very different one from Suzanne Collins’ other Hunger Games tales, whether it’s the third-person narrative, the cold and ambitious protagonist, or the general feeling of hopelessness and ruin that you know is not really going to get any better.

Born to the purple but raised in poverty, Coriolanus Snow is the only hope his grandmother and cousin Tigris have for any kind of comfort and dignity. He has to acquire a university prize and brilliant career in the upper echelons of the Capitol’s society, without ever betraying that he and his family are surviving on boiled cabbage and old outgrown clothes. If not, the Snow family will descend into… well, being ordinary poor people in the Districts, and Snow can’t bear the thought.

But then he’s dealt a blow. When various young mentors are assigned to the Hunger Games tributes, he’s given the girl tribute from District 12: Lucy Gray Baird, a strange girl with a luscious singing voice and plenty of stage presence. Though he thinks she’s crazy at first, Snow is determined to make the best of his assignment, and he even begins to believe that Lucy Gray’s charm and charisma can somehow help him.

The days before the Tenth Hunger Games are cruel to both the mentors and the tributes – there are bombings, venomous snakes, torture, and the psychopathic Dr. Gaul. But Snow’s efforts to save Lucy Gray from death in the arena, based on both his growing feelings and his desperation for success, will push them both to terrible extremes – revealing to Snow who he truly is, and what he’ll do to save himself.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins depicted District 12 as a painfully impoverished place where starvation was only a missed meal away. And in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, she depicts a different kind of poverty in the Capitol – it’s a relatively luxurious place full of wealth and parties, but there’s a rotten layer to this crumbling society, a sense of dark decay that underlies Snow’s world. And she reminds us constantly that the Capitol is still scarred by the war between Panem and the rebels, which got so bad that wealthy people cannibalized their servants in the streets.

Collins also switches up her writing here – rather than the first-person perspective of the Hunger Games trilogy, she relates Snow’s teenage adventures in the third person. Her prose is tense and taut, with moments of horror (the deaths of some of the tributes) or chilling sadness (“Tell her… that we are all so sorry she has to die”) spattered across it. The plot does grow less intense after the Hunger Games, when it seems like Snow has had to embrace a new life, but then takes a sharp twist into tragedy.

And though he’s the protagonist, Coriolanus Snow is never quite a likable person. We know where he’s coming from and what drives him, but he’s still a very chilly, proud, selfish person motivated by a belief that he is genuinely and inherently better than everyone else. When he’s around Lucy Gray, Collins slips in some actual human emotion, which builds up gradually throughout the book… but Collins never lets us forget for long that he’s not a good person, as seen when he talks about killing the mockingjays.

And he’s backed by characters who aren’t necessarily what they seem. While there’s the compassionate and slightly melodramatic Sejanus as a counterpoint to Snow’s more amoral approach, Lucy Gray is an elusive, mercurial presence that is hard to nail down. And Dr. Gaul is genuinely scary, a mad scientist who apparently does mad science entirely because she can.

There’s a deep sadness at the heart of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – a knowledge that this is a story that can’t have a happy ending, and can’t have a hero. But it is a fine dystopian tale, giving greater depth to the history of Panem.

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