Katniss Everdeen’s 74th Hunger Games is a distant future. Her rebellion against the Capitol in Mockingjay is but a dream for defiant members of the districts of dystopian Panem in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling The Hunger Games trilogy. What we have is a prequel.
Instead of the first-person point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl ready to fight to the death, we have a third-person coming-of-age story of Katniss’s arch-nemesis, Coriolanus Snow. Snow is known to fans of The Hunger Games as the tyrannical President of the Capitol, the capital city in charge of a ruinous North America known as Panem. He’s played by Donald Sutherland in the movies. But in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Snow is merely an eighteen-year-old survivor of the War that predates The Hunger Games. About to graduate from the prestigious Academy, the top-ranked school in the Capitol, Snow and twenty-three of his classmates, are assigned as mentors for the unpopular reality show known as The Hunger Games. It’s the tenth Hunger Games. Snow is poor, hungry, and struggling to retain the prestigious identity of his surname, and hopes that he will restore the Snow name to glory by mentoring his District tribute to victory, fame, and most importantly, money. He needs this to keep him, his struggling cousin Tigris, and ageing grandmother (The Grandma’am, as she likes to be called) afloat. But there’s a catch. The Dean of the Academy, Casca Highbottom, hates his guts for seemingly no reason (other than a silly nickname), and Snow is assigned the worst tribute possible: the District 12 girl. Then he hears the girl—Lucy Gray Baird—sing. When he meets Lucy Gray, his life changes irrevocably. Little does Snow know, his life and Lucy Gray’s are intertwined, and with every choice he makes to help Lucy Gray outwit her competitors, Snow will go down a path that will change how he views the world.
I came into Suzanne Collins’ latest Hunger Games book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, with a mixture of excitement and hesitation. Excitement because it was another Hunger Games book, and I’m a sucker for a good villain origin story. Hesitation because J.K Rowling started this trend of prequels and sequels to existing series, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a monstrous load of horseshit and bad fanfiction that I DNF’d on page 62. Maybe it was a good thing that I walked into this book with hesitation, because…oh, let’s cut the crap…I was hooked from page one. I’m not a fast reader, and it’s hard for me to read nonstop, but even though it took three days to read this book, it was three days of reading almost every waking hour, and this is a hefty chonker of a book, weighing in at just over 500 pages. When I wasn’t reading it, I was itching to get back to it, and thinking about the characters constantly. It took me back to 2009, when I first picked up The Hunger Games on my mother’s suggestion (ironically, I was only at the store to buy Tales of Beedle the Bard), and I read that book with relish, and remember being disappointed at the To Be Continued, because I had to wait nearly a year for Catching Fire, almost immediately picking up the book and leafing through it again. Of course Catching Fire was a big letdown, and the least enjoyable of the trilogy, with Mockingjay better but still not as great as the first one.
Well, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was like rereading The Hunger Games again. Even though any Hunger Games fan knows how this all plays out, it was still riveting, seeing the hints to the previous books and all the pieces start to play out. We start with Coriolanus Snow, young and unworldly, but with the confidence and charm to hide his insecurities from the world. His cousin Tigris—who, despite not having read the original trilogy in years, I remember her as the tattooed cat lady who helps Katniss and her fellow rebels in Mockingjay—is his sounding board, and his voice of reason. We meet other characters: There’s Dean High-as-a-kite-Bottom, who hates Snow for a reason revealed in the later pages of the book, and the creator of the Hunger Games. Dean Highbottom reminds me of unsavory professors from university, and even though I know in the long run Snow is the worse person, it’s hard to like Dean Highbottom and one can find some justice in his inevitable fate, even if it’s an overreaction. There’s Dr. Gaul, the crazy mad scientist in charge of the laboratory in a place known as the Citadel, who switches between Snow’s encouraging professor, deranged lunatic, and everything in between. She reminds me of Dr. Vahlen from the XCOM video games, and I just imagined her looking and sounding like Vahlen, and even called her Dr. Vahlen mentally when reading. We also meet Snow’s fellow classmates/mentors: the main ones being Clemensia Dovecote, a childhood friend who is irreparably damaged by Dr. Gaul, and Sejanus Plinth, the son of a District 2 man who turned traitor against his district to head a munitions empire monolith. Then, of course, we have the tributes, the most pivotal being Marcus, Reaper, Bobbin, and Brandy:
The Hunger Games itself flew by in the book. In the tenth Hunger Games, the event is clearly not as much of a spectacle as it is by Katniss’s time. Barely any citizens watch the games, Snow is the first to introduce the idea of betting on the candidates, and almost half of tributes are dead by the Games’ beginning. Rabies and tuberculosis are rampant (or are they?), and rebels (possibly from District 13) bomb the arena, which is merely just a very dilapidated Roman-esque stadium with only a few Peacekeepers (guards) keeping watch This part made me think a lot of Stephen King’s The Long Walk; more about the characters, more detached than when we are witnessing the action with Katniss. The Games are viewed from a television screen, almost like episodes of Big Brother, and this is only added to when mentors are interviewed by Capitol News and escorted away from the main viewing area when their tributes are killed. I flew through these pages, and expected the book to end with Lucy Gray dying in the Hunger Games. But there’s still another 200 pages.
I enjoyed the development of Lucy Gray and Snow’s relationship, of the inclusion of music and the poetry of the music, of Snow’s one-sided view of their romance; from his connection, to a kiss, to her singing songs to him (including The Hanging Tree, Katniss’s song), to heartbreak, to an unsurprising conclusion that felt a little rushed, but was to be expected given what we know of Snow. It feels rushed, the sudden change of his emotions towards what felt like his reason for continuing along his (evil) path, but upon realisation, it’s hundreds of pages of build-up to the end reminiscent of Lucy Gray’s naming poetry. I should have expected it, but I didn’t, and I liked that. I was more happy that there was no shoehorned ending; no Cursed Child shitty fanfiction reveal that leaves you pissed off (like Sejanus Plinth allegedly off to take a ‘piss’) how a series could end so horribly. But Collins is no J.K. Rowling.
“Hey, you found some katniss. Good work, CC.” Coriolanus wondered if he meant it to be decorative, like the Grandma’am’s roses, but she immediately examined the roots from which small tubers hung. “Little too early yet.” (p. 435)
“For what?” asked Coriolanus.
“For eating. In a few weeks, these will grow into decent-sized potatoes, and we can roast them,” said Lucy Gray. “Some people call them swamp potatoes, but I like katniss better. Has a nice ring to it.” (p. 436)
Speaking of Sejanus Plinth, who starts as a character I just (incorrectly) assumed would be one of the many people Snow is alleged to have poisoned, his character provides one of the major catalysts to Snow’s life, and is Coriolanus Snow’s polar opposite. Plinth is District born, Snow is Capitol. Plinth hates the Capitol and not-so-secretly wishes it had lost the war, Snow pretends to dislike the Capitol but is inwardly supportive of its ideals and quashing of the districts. Plinth genuinely likes Snow and believes they are friends, Snow despises Plinth but is outwardly cordial to his face. Plinth is emotional and empathetic and foolhardy and dramatic, Snow is rational and calculating and can project an aura of charisma to whoever to talks to. Sejanus Plinth’s end is tragic, but not entirely unexpected, and while we expect it, we know it’s wrong and could have been entirely avoidable had those whom he trusted the most had repaid that trust.
What that leaves us with is Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray Baird claims to be neither district nor Capitol, implying instead she is a traveller of a group called the Covey, who ended up in District 12 by accident and make their meagre income by performing in the Hob, District 12’s black market. Lucy Gray is the book’s title: she is introduced at the Reaping by chucking a snake down a rival girl’s back, and she is also a songbird, a proficient and entertaining singer who also loves the mockingjays that dominate her new home (the same mockingjays Snow loathes). She is the third part of Snow’s moral compass after Sejanus and Tigris, and is of course the most influential. Her conclusion does not provide a relief, I was hoping for something more concrete, but much like those who do not wish to analyse the meaning behind LOST’s meaningful ending, perhaps it doesn’t need a proper conclusion. We never hear her side of the story, only Snow’s, and who can blame her for her response, if it is even that, since their final confrontation is sudden and we only hear Snow’s increasingly deranged thoughts, subjective, and can only assume Lucy Gray is thinking similarly? It’s an interesting, riveting dynamic, and even though the book was over 500 pages long, I wished it was longer, and goddamnit, how did I become so invested in this book over the course of a couple of days?!
But what about Coriolanus Snow as a character? I think this new prequel adds more depth to a character that just felt like your average black-and-white, stock-standard threatening villain with a charming cadence. Before this book came out, there were a lot of angry pre-reviews, questioning why we need a story about how a tyrant became the villain we know and love to hate. Many of these people are just content to see their enemies as enemies, villains as villains, faceless and inhuman and otherworldly. It’s better to see those we disagree with as less than human, because if we can dehumanize them, that means we can separate ourselves from them. If these so-called enemies are monsters and lurkers of the shadows, then we can feel better about ourselves, because we are not them. But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes criticises this naive view of the world. Snow and his mad scientist professor, Dr. Gaul, address this constantly, with Gaul asking Snow to write him essays about the purpose of the Hunger Games; why human beings need chaos, control, and contracts; the best and worst parts of the War that preceded the invention of the Hunger Games. Snow believes the districts are bad because all he remembers of them are from the War; of them killing his loved ones, making him suffer, destroying his control, and he admits to needing control so his life is his to own and not some faraway person holding the strings. Gaul’s takeaway?
Without the threat of death, it wouldn’t have been much of a lesson… What happened in the arena? That’s humanity, undressed. The tributes. And you, too. How quickly civilization disappears. All your fine manners, education, family background, everything you pride yourself on, stripped away in the blink of an eye, revealing everything you actually are. A boy with a club who beats another boy to death. That’s mankind in its natural state…
Who are human beings? Because who we are determines the type of governing on. Later on, I hope you can reflect and be honest with yourself about what you learned tonight. (p. 243)
Lucy Gray is Dr. Gaul’s stark opposite, in that she believes humanity is innately good, and that there’s always a point where, despite being traditionally evil, you can overcome the point to be good. Doing the right thing is always best. In her words, “Try to keep your family together, and you get your head broken like my mama. What if I think that price is too high to pay? Maybe my freedom’s worth the risk… People have been around a long time without the Capitol. I expect they’ll be here a long time after.” (p. 435)
Coriolanus Snow is someone who tries to do good—he wants to live comfortably instead of struggling to eat and pay taxes and debt—but he is a reminder of the true nature of humanity. That we’re not all good nor all evil. But by pedigree of being a Snow, a well-known family in the Capitol, he is raised to be manipulative, controlling, and innately selfish without ever realising or admitting these things to himself. He thinks he is doing the right things, he justifies his bad behaviour (it was self-defence it’s kill or be killed in the arena, I was protecting the Capitol and saving us from more wars that give me PTSD back to my childhood, I was protecting my true love, she was going to betray me anyway, the professor is hateful and a drug addict and deserves whatever’s coming to him) and like almost every bad guy in history ever, he does not see himself as the villain. He sees himself as a human being, just fighting for what’s right for him, and by the time of Mockingjay, it leads to his downfall. We can empathise with a horrible person, understand their actions and behaviour, and choose to disagree. Opinion is subjective. Understanding a bad person’s behaviour does not immediately mean agreeing with them. What we learn through the course of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that Coriolanus Snow starts off as a human being, traumatised by a War that changed the course of his life, but it is he and he only who made the choices he made. We learn about the different sides of humanity: of different perspectives by Coriolanus, Sejanus, Lucy Gray, and Dr. Gaul, alongside the minor characters. Snow makes the wrong choices, despite thinking he is right, and that makes all the difference. We expect the ending, know how it will end with his relationship with Lucy Gray, and it is predictable but not too cliched, taking inspiration from Katniss and Gale’s relationship and failed plans. By ignoring the motivations behind truly reprehensible people, we will go on to repeat the past. For example, Holocaust deniers exist because these people cannot truly grasp the full scope of humanity, and are in denial that there are bad people who do bad things. Humanity can be good and beautiful, like with the Coveys and their music, and with Tigris and her innate helpfulness. It can also be manipulative and controlling like Snow. It can be psychotic like Dr. Gaul. It can be empathetic and overemotional like Sejanus. To simply lump all bad guys as “bad person: please ignore” just allows us to repeat the mistakes of the past, again and again. Snow doesn’t learn this, until perhaps too late, but we learn by Mockingjay that Katniss delves behind this mask with her killing of District 13’s President Coin.
Sometimes he stared out the windows at the dead cities they passed, now abandoned to the elements, and wondered what the world had been like when they’d all been in their glory. Back when this had been North America, not Panem. It must have been fine. A land full of Capitols. Such a waste… (p. 331)
“Sometimes we went north,” said Tam Amber, and Coriolanus realized it was the first time he’d heard him speak.
“To what district?” asked Coriolanus.
“No district, really,” said Barb Azure. “Up where the Capitol didn’t care about.”
Coriolanus felt embarrassed for them. No such place existed. At least not anymore. The Capitol controlled the known world. (p. 394)
While Katniss Everdeen’s catchphrase was about a girl on fire, Collins’ metaphor for Coriolanus Snow is snow is on top, and he is on top, even if only for a moment. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a riveting, emotional, intense, thought-provoking book that I wished was longer, and was surprisingly enjoyable and unputdownable. While I wish the final scene with Lucy Gray was longer, there was more to the end about Snow’s rise to power, and some other bits and pieces here and there, I’m glad I ended up buying this book (since libraries are closed at the moment) and delving more into the universe of The Hunger Games without it becoming the flaming coal heap that was Cursed Child.