Riveting, dark and a welcome-return to Panem; while a Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes never fully justifies its existence, it's by no mean an unentertaining ride through Collins' horrific world once again.
It takes a while to adapt to a new protagonist in A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, made even harder for the fact that Collins decides to frame her narrative around none other than Coriolanus Snow, the ruthless President of Panem during the original Hunger Games trilogy. While Snow isn’t necessary the villain during his origin tale, Collins’ carefully constructs a narrative and a host of confounding events that shape the character into the identity we recognise more clearly. However, Collins’ biggest failure is her inability to humanise or deter us much from attaching old assumptions to the character, having the prequel’s Snow as an arrogant teenager surrounded by loveable side characters that he constantly undermines and betrays. Ultimately, Snow goes from disliked to hated throughout the novel and becomes a hard character that the reader often fails to reconcile with, making the novel’s greatest quality its side characters and the development of lore as well as its allusion to the original trilogy.
The plot of A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is perhaps one of the novel’s strongest aspects. Set 64 years before the first Hunger Games novel, the narrative follows Coriolanus Snow after he is chosen as the mentor for District 12 girl, Lucy Gray, in the tenth annual Hunger Games. What ensues is a multitude of events that surpass 500-pages of tense action, delving into themes of morality, friendship, love, and, most potently, betrayal. It’s a novel with twists and turns the develops the lore and world that was set up in the original trilogy and Collins effectively does this in an obscure way. Offering us a picture of Panem and, in particular, the Capitol only ten years after the rebel uprising sees society still struggling after the war as it grapples with the Hunger Games to help control the districts. Notably, everything about the world is more mundane, and the Capitol is presented as less grand and extravagant, and this works because it’s used to establish the upcoming major changes in the Hunger Games that Collins sets up for Snow to introduce in later years. In fact, the whole aspect of the Hunger Games lacks the grandeur as seen in the original trilogy, and it isn’t an astute observation to realise how insubstantial they sometimes seem in the larger narrative at hand. While they certainly take place, the fact that Collins homes in on Snow as the main character, detracts from its presence within the larger narrative so that she can explore more freely what the Hunger Games mean and how they’re effective. While the 1/3 of the narrative that the Hunger Games uses up may still seem quite weighty, it’s more of a plot device to explore aforementioned themes and ideas, as well as a set up for later plot points. Yet, what’s constantly happening is that Collins is bringing Panem to life in full view for the audience while setting up and bridging the significant amount of time that the original trilogy only skirts around. It’s effective because it begins to bring the world to life as well as working on adding an extra-dimension to Snow and the intended purpose of the Hunger Games.
So, with Snow leading the novel, it can be quite a stark adjustment from the loveable Katniss Everdeen to the often arrogant and condescending Snow. In fact, there wasn’t one moment I ever thought I liked Snow and I wasn’t even sure if Collins wanted Snow to be likeable or not. At the heart of it, he is thrown into an unfortunate circumstance that he manages to work to his advantage, but rather than working towards a better goal, he warps the world around him to help him achieve his desires. Every action he makes towards another person that may be deemed as “nice” or “loving” is often intruded upon with Snow’s inner monologue that throws shade upon their character or makes harsh judgements. What makes these moments even harder is because most of the characters Snow looks down upon are the individuals that breathe life into the narrative and work in a humanised quality. With Snow’s tribute Lucy Gray, there’s a mismatch of turbulence to how Snow feels towards her, and his often possessive nature over her detracts from the moments of compassion and sentiment that they sometimes share. With the District 2 turned Capitol boy, Sejanus, Snow constantly sneers down at him for trying to do what seems morally right which also begs the idea that Snow fails to have much of sense morality himself. However, the main issue is all the characters seem to be more likeable than Snow or decidedly more interesting. The novel’s “antagonist” of sorts, Dr Gaul, has a wicked streak of darkness that always adds tension and unease whenever she appears in the narrative. Or there’s Dean Highbottom, who’s complex past and moral guilt that’s rooted in Snow’s lineage often gives him an added weight and feeling of authenticity within the narrative. This confounds the issue then that Snow isn’t just unlikeable, but he’s usually devoid of personality and drowned by the complexity of the book’s “villains” or outshone by the likeability of its great host of side-characters.
Yet, at its core, despite so many differences from the original trilogy, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, genuinely feels like a Hunger Games novel. Included in its narrative is the same palpable contrast between violence and innocence that Collins offered beforehand. Some moments will leave you yearning for a reprieve, and while no moment has ever truly eclipsed the gut-retching death of Rue in the first novel, Collins offers a new moment of equal heartbreak and takes death to haunting new extremes for the series. For young-adult fiction, this origin story still isn’t an easy read, and this is only accentuated by Collins forcing an uncomfortable familiarity between Snow and the reader as we watch him inevitably have a hand in every moment that occurs – for better or worse. As the novel does what the trilogy did best, reducing the depiction of humans to their carnal and animalistic needs, it adds an extra dimension by using the implication of Snow in these events to only give it a more haunting and chilling presence.
I absolutely enjoyed this novel, but at the same time, I hated it. I often found myself so dissuaded from Snow as the main character that it wouldn’t have been worth the slog if it wasn’t for the side-characters that Collins brings to life within the narrative. While there may be an argument that perhaps Snow belongs in the same classifications of protagonists that A Clockwork Orange’s Alex comes from, it doesn’t detract from the fact he single-handedly halts the narrative and becomes its weakest element. I only wish I could have learnt more about Lucy Gray, Sejanus and even Snow’s cousin, Tigris, rather than be forced to witness an origin tale that never adds much depth to its main character.
The Ballad of Songbird and Snakes by Suzanne Collins is available to purchase now.