*Note: this review contains mild spoilers for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes*
When The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was first officially announced, something in my long-lost pre-teen YA book stan soul didn’t sit right. We had finally gotten another book in The Hunger Games (THG)series and it was about … Coriolanus Snow??? Out of the myriad of storylines and characters to be explored, President Snow was definitely not one that I would have imagined as a first choice in the continuation of the fictional dystopian universe. As the release date approached, I found myself warming to the idea of an origin story for one of the absolute most heinous villains in YA literature despite my earlier reservations. However, after finishing the novel, I’m still not completely sure that’s what I got.
Taking place during the 10th annual Hunger Games and the months that follow in its wake, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was marketed as a story that followed young Coriolanus Snow’s experience mentoring in the games that eventually led to his rise to power. However, throughout the book, I couldn’t seem to figure out if the story predominately revolved around Snow’s ascent to power or the history and progression of the Games.
Read the most anticipated book of 2020 on May 19th! The Ballad of Songbirds And Snakes, a new Hunger Games novel by Suzanne Collins.
— The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (@songbirdssnakes) March 31, 2020
The narrative laid out in Collins’ new prequel was undoubtedly interesting. I quickly found myself sucked in; in fact, the very first page delivered a shocking insight into the Snow family tree with the familiar (and totally unexpected) connection to the original trilogy. The first section, with the book being divided into Collins’ classic three-part structure, was fast-paced and delivered tidbit after tidbit of information about Panem in the pre-President Snow era. As Snow is introduced to his tribute, we see him focused on his own social and economic survival while simultaneously falling for his assigned tribute, Lucy Gray Baird. Coriolanus (sometimes referred to as Coryo by his closet companions) is presented as a relatable – and even likable – character, even seeming to parallel Katniss to a point. I found myself doing the unthinkable: rooting for him during his struggles.
The vague allusions to the original rebellion in THG trilogy are clarified with a more in-depth explanation of the event that began the governmental regime’s unusually cruel annual pastime/punishment. The most fascinating facet of the first section was to see how different the climate and opinion surrounding the games were in the early installments of the practice and just how much a young Coriolanus Snow influenced them — it becomes quite obvious that a lot of the characteristics that defined the games in the trilogy were in fact devised by Snow himself. Trying to reconcile the version of Snow that readers see in the original trilogy and the intelligent, plucky, and resourceful teen that Collins presents in this prequel gave me a unique thrill, constantly poring over the smallest details in an attempt to reason out how he made such a leap from extreme to extreme.
However, as the book progressed into part two and eventually three, the pace of the novel slowed down drastically, which is in my opinion, the novel’s main issue. While the narrative clearly connected the storylines from part to part, I couldn’t help but feel disjointed, as if I was not even reading the same book. That’s not to say that it wasn’t still intriguing. The second part explores the strain that being a mentor in the games places on Coryo, with both his future and his girl at stake. We also get to know Dr. Gaul, who serves as the main figurehead for Snow’s descent into villainy. Coriolanus teeters back and forth on a moral tightrope throughout this section until a drastic event alters his path forever — he is thrown into the arena. In order to save his (sort of) pal Sejanus, Snow is forced to enter the arena and kill a tribute in self-defense, an action that ultimate serves as the turning point in his development, as Dr. Gaul uses it to shape his ideas on power and control and sets him on a path that rejects morality and embraces cruelty. Surprisingly, the storyline of the Games actually ends here — with a twist that sends Snow’s life spiraling into a realm absent of control.
Suddenly an outcast as a result of some questionable decisions, Coryo gets shipped out to be a peacekeeper in District 12. Riddled with events that both reference and explain some staples of the original trilogy, I was back to feeling like the novel was more of a history lesson on the games than a narrative of Snow’s metamorphosis. However, a drawn-out tangle of events that ultimately end in a test of loyalty, self-discovery, and betrayal end up completely changing the reader’s perception of Snow from a character that we could root for into someone despicable — especially in the last 20 or so pages. His experiences outside of the capital ultimately complete his personality’s transformation into the individual that we come to know in THG trilogy in a way that I don’t believe anyone predicted.
While strangely paced, the novel offered insight into both Snow’s character development from youth to adulthood while simultaneously fleshing out details concerning the origins of the games themselves. Despite being unsure of exactly which story it was telling at times, the resolution left me quite shocked, and yet in total understanding of how the events of the novel served as a bridge to the Panem we were first introduced to in Katniss’ story. Though I was left with some questions, I was ultimately satisfied with the book and would recommend it to anyone wanting to get a deeper insight into the inner working of Panem itself. For Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I give a solid 3/5 stars.