Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopian Science Fiction
First Publication: 2020
Major Characters: Coriolanus Snow, Casca Highbottom, Sejanus Plinth, Clemensia Dovecote, Tigris, Lucy Gray Baird, Grandma’am, Volumnia Gaul
Theme: Capitalism, Worshiping celebrities, Starvation and Poverty
Setting: In the world of Panem 64 years before the events of the original Hunger Games trilogy
Narrator: Third person from Coriolanus’s perspective
Book Summary: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.
The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.
Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is really interesting less as a villain origin story and more as a reflection on the early days of The Hunger Games. Coriolanus Snow is 18 during the events of this book, and the tenth Games are about to start. Ten years previous, when he and his classmates were 7 or 8 years old, the rebels attacked the Capitol, killing tons of people, causing mass starvation (some people even resorted to cannibalism), and leaving the city in shambles, both physically and economically.
It was fascinating to read a book from the perspective of someone who lived through that, especially at such a young age. In this book, you really get to know where Snow came from, rather than what “turned him into a villain”, because he was sort of a villain all along. As a young man he was charming, ambitious, and calculating; he was nice to people in order to advance his education/career, and he helped people but only for his own personal gain. He was always a bad person, he just used to hide it better.
The Panem in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes bears little resemblance to the one in The Hunger Games, and I was captivated by the fact that the Capitol had descended into such depravity, senselessness, and madness over the course of only sixty years.
“Afraid of everything. If the people who were supposed to protect you played so fast and loose with your life . . . then how did you survive? Not by trusting them, that was for sure. And if you couldn’t trust them, who could you trust? All bets were off.”
Right from the first chapter of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we see that the citizens of the Capitol are still reeling from the Dark Days, where they experienced numerous years of starvation, terror, and loss. It’s been ten years since their victory, but many families are still wallowing in poverty, and the physical scars of the war and still there in plain sight, haunting everyone as they go about their day-to-day activities. Slowly but surely, the Capitol is rising from the ashes, but they’re a long way away from becoming the mighty, repugnant, and destructive city we see through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen in the original trilogy.
And the Games! They’re leaps and bounds away from what the tributes in the 74th Hunger Games had to face. I struggled to comprehend the fact that they weren’t this huge, unstoppable, entertainment spectacle, but an annual event that most of the Capitol are too disgusted to watch. These Games are brutal, inhuman, and swift, and there isn’t any of the showmanship, gambling, and general decadence we’ve come to anticipate.
The Districts aren’t particularly bothered with watching the Games, and the victors are welcomed back with little fanfare. The people in the Capitol are equally as uninterested in the Games, especially as they have no reason to be emotionally invested in the children who are being sent to fight and die in the arena. In fact, some of the people in the Capitol openly call for the Games to be scrapped altogether.
“You can blame it on the circumstances, the environment, but you made the choices you made, no one else.
I think the biggest obstacle readers are going to have when reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that the pacing isn’t very consistent, and it’d be so easy to put the book down and walk away at certain junctions of the story. The plot flips so casually between engrossing, heart-pounding moments of action to slogging aimlessly through pages and pages of tedious monotony.
The characters – both fresh- and old-faced – in this novel are phenomenal, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Suzanne Collins. We all know that Snow is the protagonist, but Collins also dedicates a lot of time to the characters Lucy Gray, Sejanus, and the Covey. We may not get their perspectives, but I found these secondary characters to be such wonderful, hopeful, spirited individuals, and they were the only reason I could stomach Snow’s endless stream of condescension and entitlement.
Honestly, the only thing that could have made The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a more interesting book would have been the inclusion of Lucy Gray’s point of view, because I don’t think Snow’s inner monologue ever did this girl any justice.
“That is the thing with giving your heart. You never wait for someone to ask. You hold it out and hope they want it”
Speaking of the infamous Coriolanus Snow, he starts out The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes as a young man whose family has lost everything in the war. He, his cousin, and his grandmother are living on the breadline but are projecting a façade of wealth that is beginning to fall apart at the seams. If you thought this loss of money and status would give Snow any humility, you’d be a hopeless optimist, because the only thing motivating him at the beginning is his goal to regaining enough power and influence to restore what he believes is his family’s rightful place on top of everyone else in the known world.
Snow does eventually put up a decent fight in battling between whether he wants to be good, impoverish, and in love or manipulative, immoral, and successful. It seems, towards the middle of the book, like he is intent on fighting the part of him that craves power at any cost for the rest of his life. But, in the end, we all know he gives in to his true nature.
Snow’s evolution from impoverished war orphan to the future President of Panem was a fascinating, sickening, if slightly meandering journey. Suzanne Collins did a wonderful job of reminding us how important it is to fight back against corrupt systems and ingrained complicity by using whatever privileges we possess to our advantage, instead of giving into that part of us that likes to think only of ourselves.
“You’ve no right to starve people, to punish them for no reason. No right to take away their life and freedom. Those are things everyone is born with, and they’re not yours for the taking. Winning a war doesn’t give you that right. Having more weapons doesn’t give you that right. Being from the Capitol doesn’t give you that right. Nothing does.”
Lucy Gray is the polar opposite of Snow, and she’s one of my all-time favourite fictional characters! Charismatic, vivacious, and bold; she shows these traits of her personality from her very first (and memorable) scene, where she casually tosses a snake down the dress of the mayor’s daughter and then precedes to bellow out a mesmerising, unforgettable ballad on the stage of the reaping. She captured the hearts of the Capitol citizens from the moment they laid eyes on her. What you slowly begin to realise about her over the course of the first ten chapters is that she isn’t just a pretty face – she’s also fierce, shrewd, and daring, and she knows she has a chance of winning these Games.
Whilst still being an original character in her own right, Lucy Gray did have a spark that reminded me so much of Katniss. Whatever she does, even unintentionally, she seems to attract the admiration of others, and people want to root for her.
Overall, I’d have to say The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was one of the most wonderfully crafted, character-driven, and philosophy-heavy books of the year. It’s a fantastic, eloquent, and harrowing villain origin story that I hope will act as a cautionary tale to young readers on the destructive powers of arrogance, entitlement, and ego-centrism. Snow’s descent into the man we know him as in The Hunger Games is slowly, cautiously, and richly done, and Suzanne Collins makes it clear that all we are is the sum of our choices, so we have to make sure they’re good ones.