Book: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
BECHDEL TEST: FAIL-By conceit of the novel, this book fails as it’s all told through Snow’s eyes.
Content Warnings: Violence, death, extreme poverty, mentions of cannabalism, substance abuse, animal experimentation, PTSD, mentions of war, allusions to sexual assault, bombing, snakes, mentions of suicide/suicidal thoughts, eating disorder, mentions of amputation, animal death
Being a massive Hunger Games fan back when it was all the rage (i.e. around 2012 when the first film came out), when I saw that Suzanne Collins was coming out with a prequel, I was both excited, and welll……surprised. It seemed like she was pretty happy leaving The Hunger Games where it was and the prequel announcement last year seemed to come out of nowhere. Then everyone was up in arms because it was about Snow, but I’ve always loved a villain origin story and trusted that Collins was unlikely to try and make Snow seem redeemable given the themes of the original Hunger Games. Well I was right, Snow definitely doesn’t come off looking like the hero in his own story, but if you’re going into Ballad, don’t be expecting the fast paced intensity of the original trilogy, Ballad is slower, longer and more introspective, often to its detriment. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
Ambition will fuel him.
Competition will drive him.
But power has its price.
It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, 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.
So we’ll start with my biggest issue of this book which was once again: THE PACING. Surprise! I don’t know what it is with this year and slow books but I’ve been seriously having my run of them this year! Anyway, do not go in expecting something as intense as The Hunger Games, because this book is not it, it’s definitely a slow build and whilst there are exciting moments, it’s nothing like the original Hunger Games trilogy. The chapters are way too long (at around 20-30 odd pages) and the book itself is probably longer than it needed to be, given that the longest Hunger Games book is 472 pages and this is a good 45 pages longer than that.
I liked all the little nods to the original Hunger Games trilogy, the creation and origin of “The Hanging Tree”, various ancestors of characters from the original trilogy featured, little easter eggs to Katniss, if you liked the original trilogy (and I would assume most people reading this book would) then there’s plenty here for you.
Snow himself was….well basically as I expected him to be? Collins doesn’t try to excuse his actions or make him seem redeemable, he’s always been looking out for the top and doing whatever he had to do to get there it turns out. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting his relationship with Tigris (yes, that Tigris, she’s his cousin) because I never thought there was really anyone that Snow cared about, but I suppose even psychopaths have families! Anyway, it’s a little disconcerting being in Snow’s head, but I did appreciate the insight into how he became who he was in the trilogy and it’s quite clear that the makings of a mass murderer were already there even at 18.
It was really interesting to see the early days of The Hunger Games, which were well……a bit less polished than the ones we saw in the original trilogy. Essentially, the tributes were largely just stuffed into a makeshift arena that wasn’t really changed from year to year and neither the districts or the Capitol were that interested. It does seem very coincidental that pretty much all of the ideas that made it into the iteration of the Hunger Games that we know came from Snow, and it also seemed a bit strange that The Capitol kept the Hunger Games going for ten years even when no one was particularly interested? Like surely after that length of time you might come up with a different way to punish the districts? I get that she wanted to show that The Hunger Games weren’t always the spectacle that they were in Katniss’s time, but I think she perhaps went a little too far the other way!
The origins of the Hunger Games was also a pretty cool thing to find out about, I don’t want to spoil too much on that front, but it was not what I expected at all.
Snow’s mentor, Dr Gaul, was definitely a worthy predecessor to Snow, I can understand how Snow ended up the way he did with a woman like her influencing him, she put the Gamemakers in Katniss’ time to shame with her animal/human experimentations and the way she seemed to have absolutely no sympathy for human life whatsoever. If Suzanne Collins ever wanted to do a story about Gaul, I reckon I’d find it pretty intriguing!
There were a lot of characters to follow, and unlike the original Hunger Games, all the tributes, and their mentors are named in this one, so it was hard to keep track of who was who most of the time! The occasional updated character lists did help somewhat but I still struggled to know which mentor and tribute was which, especially when the Capitol kids had some really tricky names.
The characters also weren’t massively well developed, I mean Snow was, and Dr Gaul, and Sejanus but the tributes and other mentors seemed pretty one dimensional. Even Lucy Gray, who I did like, I wanted more from. We only see her through Snow’s eyes, so I feel like we didn’t get the full picture of what she was actually like, which was a shame because she seemed like she could have been really interesting if she was developed more.
The “romance”, such as it was, wasn’t really a romance. Snow is super obsessed with Lucy Gray, for no apparent reason, other than the fact that he likes her voice and it was never really that clear why Lucy Gray liked him other than the fact that he gave her food. You kind of get the feeling that much like Katniss, she was only pretending to have feelings for him in order to get him to help her, but without any genuine feelings ever developing. The fact that he basically treats her as a possession was also super uncomfortable.
I felt really bad for Sejanus, he really just wanted to make their world a better place and just couldn’t figure out the best way to do that. He truly considered Snow a friend and Snow basically does nothing to deserve that, even rescuing him from the arena wasn’t out of concern, it was all for his own gain. Sure, Sejanus was probably too naive for the Captiol but Snow basically just used him and his family for his own gain.
I did find it a bit strange that Snow’s connections to 12 were never mentioned in the book, but that’s always an issue with prequels, there’s always some detail that’s thought through later that doesn’t quite work. I suppose it could be chalked up to the fact that Katniss would have no reason to know that Snow was once a peacekeeper in 12, but it seems like the sort of thing that would be quite well known about a President of your country.
Dare I say it, but the actual games themselves were kind of……dull? I mean again I get it, she was trying to show that the Games weren’t always the way they were in the original trilogy but I was expecting something way more action packed and it was mostly just tributes hiding out until they either died of natural causes or were killed. The process of actually getting to The Hunger Games was a little drawn out as well, I kept wondering when the real action was going to start!
The writing in this was decent, but it was maybe a little overly wordy? It was definitely a very different style to The Hunger Games, which fitted Snow I guess, but I didn’t love it as much as the original Hunger Games books.
I would have liked to finally see more of the other districts, it actually would have been nice if Lucy Gray had come from another district, just so we could have seen a bit more other than The Capitol and District 12, both of which we saw a lot of in the original trilogy. I assume that Collins was trying to draw a link between Katniss and the Covey (various theories speculate that Lucy Gray or Maude Ivory respectively could be Katniss’ grandmother, which does make some sense given the link with the two songs from THG and the katniss plant).
I still don’t really understand why Snow hates the mockingjays so much. I definitely understand more now why he hated Katniss so much, she must have reminded him of Lucy Gray and the Covey but his initial revulsion of the mockingjays makes little sense to me.
She definitely leans harder into the philosophical discussions in this book than in the first book, which I found quite interesting.
Seeing the Capitol’s side of things in this book, it obviously doesn’t excuse how they treat the Districts at all, but it does make more sense why they were so determined to keep them poor and unable to fight back when you see how the war crippled the Capitol and its families. Katniss and Snow actually have more in common than I thought, they both lost family members at a young age, they were both poor (though arguably Katniss had it worse) and the way Snow was obsessed with food because he had never had enough definitely reminded me of Katniss in the first book.
The Capitol really did treat the tributes awfully in The Hunger Games originally and it did make me wonder when things changed, because even though The Hunger Games was awful, they didn’t throw Katniss and Peeta in a cage before their games and leave them to starve to death, I assume it was probably the Games after this one.
I liked the songs in this, I wasn’t expecting there to be so many, despite the title but they fitted well. I have to admit, they didn’t have much of an impact just reading the lyrics but I found a girl on YouTube called Maiah Wayne who put all of the songs to music and I definitely recommend listening to them because I imagine it would really add to the experience!
The ending was a little rushed, it felt like Snow did a complete 180 on Lucy Gray without all that much buildup and everything came to a resolution far too quickly given that the book was over 500 pages!
Overall, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a decent read, but didn’t live up to the heights of the original trilogy. Still, if Suzanne Collins wanted to write more books in the world of Panem, I would definitely not be opposed to it!
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant.