By Ekta R. Garg, R.eviewer

August 6, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Release date: May 19, 2020

Genre: YA dystopian fiction

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

I’ll admit, when I first heard that Suzanne Collins was writing a new Hunger Games book, I was excited but also apprehensive. Often when a writer creates a book or a series that turns into blockbusters, they return to that world and either compromise it (hence making the sequel lesser than the original) or else make it something else entirely, taking away from the charm of the original.

Still, I loved The Hunger Games. As much as it pained me to read the books—because I got so involved in the stories that I felt like I lived them along with the characters—I wanted to know what else happened in the world of Panem. So I pre-ordered my copy of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes along with probably thousands of other people and waited.

When I got the copy, even with the gorgeous cover, I held my breath as I began reading. In the days following, I exhaled soft and slow. Suzanne Collins had not only done justice to the world she’d created. She’d given her readers something new.

Granted, this book is miles away from the original trilogy in a variety of ways. The original books are written in first person. We spend all of our time inside Katniss’s head. Even as I cheered her on through the first three books, I kept wishing we knew what else was happening in the world of Panem. Collins does that with Ballad. She writes in third person, following Coriolanus Snow as a young person and answering questions about why he is the way he is in the first three books.

Another main difference is that the original story of the Hunger Games came to us as a trilogy. They were each shorter than this one standalone story of President Snow. To that end, readers could whip through the individual books faster. Ballad forces readers to slow down and take in the story one bit at a time.

Also, I have no idea if this is true, but I get the sense that this is all Collins is going to say about Snow in particular, about his “origin story” if you will. I’ll go more into this next week in my post as e.ditor, but I feel like Collins packed the book the way she did because she wanted to get it all on the page and move on. Given Snow’s character, I can see why.

For those of you who haven’t read it, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes starts 64 years before The Hunger Games. Coriolanus Snow is a young student with eyes bright and hopeful for a future, despite the fact that his family has fallen on hard times. His immediate family is dead. Only his grandmother and cousin, Tigris, are left.

The Snow family, once one of the most celebrated and revered in the Capitol, is reduced to eating boiled cabbage and eking out a living on Tigris’s tiny pay as assistant to a fashion designer. Coriolanus’s wardrobe gets a facelift from the castoffs of Tigris’s job. He’s hoping for a spot at the university, but he knows he has to find a way to distinguish himself to get a scholarship. It’s the only way the family can afford it.

In the meantime, talk is afoot in the Capitol on how to rev up energy around the Hunger Games. It’s only been 10 years since the start of the Games, and while everyone in government agrees they’re necessary no one knows quite how to make them more interesting. No one watches them, and people often forget when they’re happening or who won. It’s like people know the Games are a part of their life now that the rebellion has been stamped out, but they’ve accepted the fact and learned to move on.

A Capitol official suggests mentorships, and Snow is tapped to be one of the original 24 mentors. He becomes responsible for Lucy Gray, the female tribute from District 12. At first, all he thinks about is ways to make her stand out. The idea of gifts for tributes from the districts gets floated, and Snow knows he has to drum up sympathy for Lucy Gray if she’s going to get any gifts and survive. If he can get her into the top 12 or top 6, his chances of a scholarship look good. If she wins the Games, the scholarship is his for sure.

Then a curious thing happens. Snow starts to develop romantic feelings for Lucy Gray, and she reciprocates. Suddenly, he’s stuck between that age-old question: should he listen to his head that keeps urging him to look for the next opportunity to advance in the Capitol or his heart that insists a life with Lucy Gray, quiet and unremarkable though it may be, is better?

Fans of the series already know what Snow chose. What’s left, then, is how he got there. Ballad might be seen as a novel’s worth of back story, but along with providing us more insight into Snow it also gives us a look into how the Games went from a ragtag affair to a reality TV show by the time Katniss volunteers as tribute. We learn how Snow was instrumental in shaping the Games for decades to come, which explains why he takes it so personally when an upstart tribute (also from District 12) dares to call herself the Mockingjay and challenge his rule. The odds have been in his favor for so long; who does Katniss Everdeen think she is to upend them?

Once again, even as I watched Snow in horrified fascination, I kept wishing we had more. The rebellion in Ballad is only 10 years old, and Collins does a brilliant job of making it feel more immediate in this book. I was itching to ask the characters so many questions.

What happened? I wanted to say. What caused the rebellion in the first place? How could Panem have still survived? Collins’s excellent descriptions of crumbling, devastated buildings in the Capitol and conversations between characters about inconsistent supply lines show that even the richest districts were still struggling at this time. What caused that level of devastation, and did the ruling heads honestly think it was all worth it in the end?

Detractors of Ballad say Collins was trying to advance a liberal agenda, that she was trying to use the book to voice her politics. I think she was making an observation on how a society moves and what we’re capable of if a series of events and circumstances align in just the right way. Snow experiences several moments when he could have made different choices, become a different person. The allure of power mixed with his inherent personality traits and the poverty of his own life took him down a different path.

If nothing else, I find it interesting that Collins decided to share Snow’s demise with us first and then his rise to power. We get a nice look at who he is as a person, and even though he ends Ballad as wholly unsympathetic, I still can’t help feel sorry for him. He had a chance at love, at goodness, and he turned it away. When he met Katniss, then, I wonder whether she reminded him of Lucy Gray and to what degree.

We may never know. But I still found The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes incredibly good. I recommend readers should Bookmark it.