A decade after the publication of the last novel in the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins has released a prequel to her acclaimed series– and this time, it follows the story of the trilogy’s notorious President Snow. Set sixty-four years before The Hunger Games began, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is told from the viewpoint of Coriolanus Snow, the boy who will one day become the iron-fisted leader of Panem. But the idea of becoming the president seems no more likely than a pipe dream to eighteen-year-old Coriolanus. Ten years after the war that devastated the districts and Capitol alike, Coriolanus struggles to maintain the facade of the affluence that the Snow family once enjoyed. The war left Coriolanus; his kindhearted cousin Tigris; and their proud, if slightly addled, grandmother with little else but their reputations and family home to their names, and Coriolanus’s only hope is to win a scholarship prize to carry him through University–a ticket to a respectable career and the return of wealth to his family name.
The Hunger Games are far from the elaborate show of Katniss Everdeen’s time, consisting of little more than throwing the twenty-four tributes into the Capitol’s dilapidated amphitheater arena with a collection of old weapons to beat each other to death with. But this year, a new twist is introduced– one that may be Coriolanus’s greatest hope for the renown he needs. Each tribute will be matched with a mentor– and Coriolanus is placed with the vividly charming Lucy Gray Baird from District 12. As the path to the Games continues, this year proves itself to be a far cry from those past, catapulting Panem into an era of a new and changed Hunger Games.
As would be expected, Coriolanus is much more of an antihero than the heroine of the original trilogy. While Katniss is ultimately defined by her fierce loyalty to her loved ones, Coriolanus is ruled by his constant campaign for power, control, and his own benefit. There’s a definite character arc present for him, but it’s almost like the reverse of what you’d normally find. The negative traits are always present, but they’re not nearly as obvious until Coriolanus is placed in desperate situations. It’s sort of like the plot of the book is steadily bringing his true nature to light. In the beginning of the novel, it’s easier to sympathize with him, but as the story goes on, his path to tyranny grows more and more clear– he grows from the charming young Coriolanus trying to uphold his family name to the calculating and opportunistic Snow, the beginnings of the cold-hearted Hunger Games villain.
Aside from the riveting plot and pacing, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes must also be commended for the debates it brings up about human nature and the necessity of control. It’s actually kind of fascinating (if disturbing) to get a glimpse inside the head of someone whose views on human nature take a much darker turn than most literary heroes. Although Katniss’s worldview was far from optimistic, Coriolanus’s is deeply unsettling at points. It’s interesting to note the differences between the two protagonists, especially when The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes references details that come up in the original trilogy. This book really is an origin story, both for Snow and for the Hunger Games themselves. The fact that this is a prequel to a well-known trilogy is hard to forget, but in a good way– you can sense the story building ominously towards the world Katniss Everdeen was born into.
In some ways, this book seems darker than the Hunger Games trilogy, partially because of its protagonist and the knowledge that there’s no possible kind of “happy ending” waiting, at least not for decades after this book finishes. The feel of the book is markedly different than that of the original trilogy, mostly due to the fact that it doesn’t take place inside the arena (Although there’s still the grim violence and harsh consequences that the tyrannical Capitol is known for). Most of the book’s timeline is set before or after the Games, and even during the event, the narration is from an outsider looking in, as Coriolanus is a mentor. Coming back to the nature of the protagonist, this is another angle that works to separate The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes from its predecessors. The idea of the antihero and his differences in perspective, experience, and response to the circumstances he’s placed in make this novel a vastly different kind of story than the one told in The Hunger Games.
All in all, this book is a worthy addition to the Hunger Games saga– it acts well as both a prequel a novel, and in no way does it seem like a copy of the original trilogy. The direction The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes is a fascinating one, and unique to both the rest of the series and the wider landscape of dystopian YA literature. I loved finding the nods and tie-ins to the original trilogy– the details connected beautifully, as if this book been planned all along. It’s definitely worth a read, especially for those who love the rest of the Hunger Games series.