It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every evil YA dystopian dictator was once an ambitious, self-centered and clueless teen who really, truly hated cabbage.
Genre: YA, sci-fi, dystopian
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Favorite quote: “There is a point to everything or nothing at all, depending on your worldview.”
First lines: “Coriolanus released the fistful of cabbage into the pot of boiling water and swore that one day it would never pass his lips again. But this was not that day.”
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place during the 10th Hunger Games and follows 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow, future villain of The Hunger Games, as he mentors District 12’s female tribute, the eccentric yet captivating Lucy Gray Baird.
Coriolanus is determined to escape his fallen-from-grace family’s poverty and maintain his honorable reputation. But as he begins grappling with his feelings for Lucy Gray and doubts about the Capitol’s ethics, Coriolanus is forced to decide what he is willing to give up.
This book was decidedly different from the original trilogy.
I had heard mixed reviews, so I was a little skeptical going into the book, and, unfortunately, I didn’t love it.
The Hunger Games is known for its lightning-fast pacing, especially in the first book. (I guess it’s technically slow-paced, since most of the story takes place in a few days, but so much happens that the book goes by extremely quickly.) All three original books are also fairly short, ~300 pages each.
This prequel, on the other hand, is 500+ pages and moves very slowly.
I don’t know if it’s because I just didn’t feel like reading when I was trying to get through this book, but it was just… boring and very slow-paced.
There is very little action, especially compared to the originals, and barely any tension. We didn’t care about any of the tributes, and even though the actual Hunger Games weren’t the main focus of this story, the rest of the plot was fairly uneventful.
One of the reasons The Hunger Games is so gripping is the first-person, present tense narration. The writing style makes you feel as if you ARE Katniss, and the opening scenes grab your attention. As the exposition develops, the reader becomes very sympathetic to Katniss: she volunteered for her sister! Their family has no food! How will she survive? What about Peeta?
In contrast, this book is told in third-person limited, past tense. This removes the urgency from the narrative, and honestly, there’s nothing to make us care very deeply about Coriolanus. He’s “poor”, but we rarely ever see evidence of this.
I mean, Suzanne Collins opens the book talking about the cabbage Coriolanus didn’t want to eat. That’s high stakes right there.
There’s also a lot of weirdly stilted dialogue, like this character’s response to Coriolanus yelling at him:
“You’re right, Coryo. Thanks. I’m going to think over what you said.”
The main villain in this backstory about our original villain is Dr. Gaul, a slightly creepy, mostly just weird Capitol doctor who likes to devise convoluted plans and sic snakes on people.
She would be a compelling villain if she was actually present in the story, but she only does anything nefarious one or two times, and exists to be roasted by Coriolanus:
“How awful, Coriolanus thought. To have you be the first person in the world a baby sees.”
She’s also the mouthpiece for all of Suzanne Collins’ political and ethical commentary on the Capitol’s rationale for the Hunger Games.
As in, she literally makes Coriolanus write an essay on the “positives of war” at one point. Hidden meanings can’t get much more straightforward than that!
Consequently, there is a lot of emotional reflection from Coriolanus, and much philosophical musing about war and violence, a la Lord of the Flies.
“He tried to imagine what it would be like if the whole world played by those same rules… People taking what they wanted, when they wanted, and killing for it if it came to that…. So people needed to agree on laws to follow. Was that what Dr. Gaul had meant by “social contract”? …Without the control to enforce the contract, chaos reigned.”
Social contract? That’s Thomas Hobbes! See, I do remember stuff from AP gov.
These scenes are some of the more interesting parts of the book; we get to learn a lot more about WHY the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games- apparently not only to punish the districts. According to this book, there was a certain state of nature, social contract theory-obsessed mad scientist involved.
I have no problem with villain origin stories, but they should at least explain HOW the person became the way they are. Sure, this book takes place 65 years before the events of the original series, but still.
Coriolanus never exhibits the same kind of personality as President Snow; he’s self-centered and a little too concerned with his public image, but we never find out what HAPPENED that turned him into the villain of the original trilogy. Even by the very end of the book, our Coriolanus doesn’t quite equate to President Snow.
He gets worse over the course of the book, but he never seems like the dictator we hated, just a woefully misguided, concerningly possessive teenager.
And I’m not kidding about the concerning possessiveness:
“He hadn’t worked out all of the details, but the point was, he got to keep her. And he wanted to keep her. Safe and close at hand. Admired and admiring. Devoted. And entirely, unequivocally his.“
Also, none of the other characters are very developed. Lucy Gray Baird is intriguing, but she is also unbelievably emotionless and strange.
Sejanus, Coriolanus’ district-born friend, is a personality-less plot device used solely to proclaim the perverseness of the Hunger Games to Coriolanus and make him confused about the morality of the Capitol. He is mostly just there to act as the proverbial angel on Coriolanus’s shoulder.
The other Capitol students Coriolanus was friends with are all completely bland; I don’t remember any of their names except Clemensia, and they as well are transparent plot devices to espouse the idea that the tributes were viewed as animals by the Capitol citizens, adding almost nothing else to the story and slowing down the plot even more.
But now let’s get to the good parts of this book.
I loved how we got to learn more about the history and dynamics of Panem. The origins of the Hunger Games as well as the mysterious conflict between the districts and Capitol are explained, as well as how its citizens became so morally deprived as to enjoy watching the Hunger Games on TV.
Many aspects of the original trilogy were explained and built upon in this book. We discover the backstory of the song from Mockingjay (mind blown!) and more about Peacekeepers and District 12.
I added on .25 stars for the ending scene– which I won’t get into because this is a spoiler-free review- but it was not what I was expecting and could possibly? Maybe? Hopefully? be a segue into a more fulfilling sequel to this prequel.
I also really liked the mockingjay part… if Collins ever does write a follow-up book for this, I am willing to bet that the symbolic significance will be explored further.
That’s it for today’s review; feel free to check out my spoiler-free reviews for the original THG trilogy:
Have you read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes? Do you think it lives up to the original trilogy? Let me know in the comments.