The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
I loved Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, thought Catching Fire was quite good if not as great as the first one, and was only so-so on Mockingjay. Also, it’s an uphill battle to write a good, enjoyable prequel if the reader already knows what’s going to happen to the main character in the later books and (spoiler) it’s highly unpleasant. So I hesitated for over a year to read Collin’s latest HUNGER GAMES book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2020), but when I saw it on my local library’s shelf a few weeks ago I decided to give it a shot. It was surprisingly good!
It’s some sixty-four years before Katniss will enter the Hunger Games. The Capitol recently won a brutal civil war against the rebellious districts, and as part of their punishment of the districts, instituted the Hunger Games ten years ago. The Games aren’t the spectacle that they will later become; they’re more a brief, brutal battle to the death between twenty-four hapless youths, a boy and a girl from each district, who are kept in filthy cages before the Games start and fight in a dilapidated sports arena. Little attention is paid to the Games by most people, so, to try to increase the Hunger Games’ popularity with viewers, this year those in charge of the Games have assigned a high school-aged mentor to each contestant.
Teenager Coriolanus Snow is from a distinguished Capitol family that has fallen into the depths of poverty but is desperately hiding it from everyone. When he’s chosen as a mentor and is assigned the District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, he’s initially fearful that she’s one of the weakest contestants and will hurt his chances for a needed college scholarship. So while he brainstorms ways to increase the mass appeal of the Games, Coriolanus finagles his way into meeting with Lucy Gray several times before the Games start, to try to increase her (and his) popularity with viewers. More importantly, Lucy Gray turns out to be far more intelligent, talented and attractive than Coriolanus or anyone else guessed, and his attraction to her grows along with his assessment of her chances for winning the Games.
As in the main HUNGER GAMES trilogy, the action in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is melded with social commentary. Here, though, the overall story is much more deliberately paced, as it focuses on the internal thoughts and psychology of Coriolanus Snow and the people and society around him. Collins does a great job of creating a conflicted, complex character in teenage Coriolanus Snow, who’s from a distinguished Capitol family that has fallen into the depths of poverty but is desperately hiding it from everyone. This desperation informs Coriolanus’ character and choices: social, educational and financial security and the good opinion of others are so important to him, and it easily slides into self-centeredness and pride. He’s charming, intelligent and well-spoken, but ruthlessly ambitious (“Snow always lands on top!” is the family motto) and often deceptive. Still, at this point in his life there’s still good in Coriolanus, and being around Lucy Gray brings out the better part of him.
As a counterpart to the goodness and morality of Lucy Gray and Coriolanus’ classmate Sejanus, there’s Dr. Gaul, a coldblooded teacher who conducts cruel genetic experiments and creates both human and animal mutations, including neon-colored, deadly snakes, and seems to view herself as a kind of mentor to Coriolanus. The snakes and songbirds motif surfaces repeatedly, as both birds and serpents play roles in the story in both physical and symbolic ways: Lucy Gray Baird (Bird?) is a singer with a musical group called the Covey (a small group of birds); Coriolanus makes use of the recording abilities of jabberjays but is disturbed by the crossbred, unruly mockingjays; and snakes become a key element in the plot … more than once, in fact.
It’s interesting to see the differences between where the Hunger Games are at this point in time and what they become a generation later, when Katniss plays. You can see the seeds of a lot of those later changes beginning here. Many of the facets of the games in Katniss’ day, like betting on contestants and sending them food and valuable goods by drones, have their genesis here.
Extra points to the author for the depth added to this novel through her inclusion of various philosophies about human nature and warfare, which play out in the various characters’ roles and the choices Coriolanus makes. Tip: take just a few minutes to familiarize yourself a little with the competing philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, if you’re not already knowledgeable about them. Collins also explains her thinking and these philosophies in an intriguing afterword.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a book that has deeper layers to dig out and think over. It’s not always pleasant to be in the head of a future dictator, but it’s a fascinating view into the development of both his personality and the Hunger Games themselves.