Spoiler-Free: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is No Hunger Games

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes | Suzanne Collins

★★★

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is told through the third-person perspective of Coriolanus Snow whose once-rich family has been devastated due to the war between the Capitol and the Rebels. Ten years after victory, his family are living in relative poverty and their only chance to reclaim their position is if Snow attends university and rises up the ranks of the Capitol’s elite. The book begins when a 17-year-old Snow is given an opportunity to do so through a school assignment to be a mentor during the 10th annual hunger games and work on making it more engaging for a Panem that has very little interest in it. He is disappointed then, when he is assigned the girl from District 12, sure that she will lose.

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I feel like my expectations for BoSaS were reasonable; I knew it was going to be a smaller story than The Hunger Games, I knew Snow was going to be the protagonist – and having seen the sample chapters, it was indicated that there would not be a redemptive arc. I also expected a lot of political and cultural analysis as the premise of this book was essentially making a death sport more palatable to the masses. It wasn’t what I’d expected.

Ballad_of_songbirdsThe book is told in three parts; the first is the lead up to the games, the second features the games themselves and the final part is the aftermath. I enjoyed the first two parts the most. I am fascinated with the Capitol and the geek in me loved the expanding of the world. For example, Coriolanus, too is hungry all of the time. Except there is an immediate contrast between him and Katniss where he longs for enough food to throw away where she longs for simply enough food.

What a luxury it would be to toss it in the trash without a second thought. What a luxury trash would be.

The build up to the games in part 1 establishes his character and introduces us to Lucy Baird Gray, the District 12 girl. Lucy is loud, she is bold, she is a singer and she is part of a travelling community, the Covey, that was forced to settle in District 12. Being Covey humanises her in Snow’s eyes, forcing him to treat her like a person rather than like a zoo animal. (There are a few things that were very on the nose in this book, one of them was literally putting tributes in a zoo enclosure and Lucy performing for food.) I wasn’t a huge fan of a potential relationship between Snow and Lucy, but it does work in the story. Alongside his ambition, a relationship between the two feels like a realistic motivation for wanting to win the Hunger Games and adds genuine conflict.

Compared to the spectacular events we witness in the 74th and 75th Games, the Games have been basic, gladiatorial events with 24 children thrown straight into an old stadium, given weapons and expected to fight as long as they can survive without food or water. Snow comes up with the concept of sponsorship, sending in food and betting on the tributes, and the idea of interviews are added here. The reality television elements felt like an opportunity to critique and contrast the relationship between entertainment and punishment. This is hinted upon in the book but we are limited to only seeing Snow’s peers, the other school-aged mentors.

By midafternoon the school had made fruit punch available which gave a festive appeal to the event

We see the Games from an external perspective this time and because it is held in a sports stadium, most of the tributes spend their time ‘offscreen’ hiding in tunnels. If the Hunger Games were the less compelling parts of the original series, here they are even less interesting. The mentors send food to their tributes, taking credit for their tributes’ success. Unlike Snow, however, not all of the mentors are enthusiastic about being part of the Games.

“That doesn’t help, somehow. Being used like this,” said Lysistrata sadly. […]
Used? Coriolanus had not thought of being a mentor as anything but an honor. A way to serve the Capitol and perhaps gain a little glory. But she had a point. If the cause wasn’t honorable, how could it be an honor to participate in it? He felt confused, then manipulated, then undefended. As if he were more a tribute than a mentor.

This kind of internal conflict occurs throughout the book but Snow always returns to his faith in the Capitol. Snow’s character, it is very quickly established, is a selfish one. His ambition is highlighted in the first chapter, his selfishness and lack of empathy is emphasised throughout.

Snow 2
via EW

The truth was, most of what the Capitol did, he supported, and rest rarely concerned him.

His personality is performative and often we see his inner dialogue calculate how to respond to portray himself in the most positive light. Simply put, he is a snake.

No one wanted a redemptive arc for Snow but the problem with this is that it leaves him with a flat arc. Katniss Everdeen also has a flat arc but hers is a successful one. Her view of the Capitol being evil, the desire to survive and central motivation to protect the ones she loves is consistent. She becomes more invested in the rebellion as the books progress but her character doesn’t change. The flat arc works in The Hunger Games because Katniss inspires change in others by becoming the Mockingjay and triggering the revolution. Snow doesn’t change but nor does he change anyone else.

The tricky thing about writing a prequel is that the audience usually knows what happens next. We know that Snow eventually becomes President, climbing his way to the top and poisoning his enemies, so not only does The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes need to be compelling on its own, but it also needs to move naturally in the direction of The Hunger Games. That’s where it really failed for me. Parts 1 and 2 make a lot of sense, and you can possibly see how Snow ends up as President. Part 3 moves him so far away from his fate as President that the shift back to this path happens essentially in the final chapter, giving you whiplash.

This book was a pageturner, with lots of cliffhanger chapters and the book kept surprising me. Collins’ writing is compelling and I was sucked back into the world of Panem and the Hunger Games. There are lots of Easter eggs for series fans and ‘aha’ moments when you realise how something fits in the world and it doesn’t feel added in just for the sake of it. I was never bored, and I think there’s a lot to be discussed. However, it didn’t feel like it added enough to the world and its not a book that I feel like I would come back to, where The Hunger Games series blew me away several years later as well.

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Have you read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes? Will you read it? What did you think?

3 thoughts on “Spoiler-Free: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is No Hunger Games

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